Q: How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?
A: Four. Calling its tail a leg doesn't make it one.
This children’s riddle, with its silly yet logical punch line, came to mind as I was listening to this programme.
Grieg never wrote a violin concerto, although his incidental scores allow the instrument some solo exposure, sometimes imitating the folk style of the Norwegian hardanger fiddle. So I could see how outfitting the three violin-and-piano sonatas with orchestral backings might have seemed useful.
The process, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one thing, concertos and chamber music don't really do the same things: the positioning of the soloist and the orchestra as antagonists in a concerto is quite different from chamber music’s cooperation between or among presumed equals. In each case, form follows function: in many concertos, the opening movement offers a double exposition – one statement by the orchestra, another by the soloist – where chamber sonatas frequently get down to business with no more than a cursory preamble. Then there’s the small matter of transcribing the piano part: the more idiomatic the writing, the less well, or readily, it will adapt to the orchestra.
The orchestrations here, by soloist Hennig Kraggerud and Bernt Simen Lund of the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, are reasonably artful, but their realization of the first sonata/concerto particularly points up the difficulties involved. The orchestral textures are busy to the point of distraction – Grieg’s own ear favoured more compact sonorities – and, save for a single virtuoso scale in the central ‘slow’ movement (Allegretto quasi andantino), the solo violin has little opportunity to cut through the instrumental clutter.
The other two concerto-sonatas make a stronger case for themselves. The piano parts seem to have allowed the orchestrators to get closer to an idiomatic Grieg sound, better organized and with a clear sense of direction; there are even bits of typical concertante back-and-forth between soloist and orchestra. The G major score takes in some dancing, lilting themes, and offers some lovely solo moments not only to the violin but to the woodwind principals. The C minor evinces some familiar Grieg stylistic tropes: broad melodies that build above pulsing wind chords; folk-like and Gypsy-like strains in the latter two movements; and, at the start of the central movement, a cool, clear flute solo akin to that in the Piano Concerto’s finale. In this orchestral rendering, the first-movement climaxes become surprisingly portentous – which, I suspect, doesn't happen in the original.
The Naxos blurb calls the soloist, Hennig Kraggerud, “the foremost Norwegian violinist of his generation”. You wouldn't know it from the F major, which allows few opportunities to savour his playing. In the other two pieces, especially the G major, with its tender and virtuosic passages, we can better appreciate his musicality and flair. His smooth attacks on full-bodied legato lines are consistently pleasing. The chamber orchestra sounds good, though some of the bigger moments could have used a bigger ensemble.
The recording is vivid. The ambience further muddles the goings-on in the F major score – the flute hits the mikes particularly hard, making it sound sharp – but registers more subtly elsewhere.
Remember the riddle I mentioned? What we have here isn’t quite a group of violin concertos, but a collection of orchestrated chamber music. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, or unappealing: merely that the arrangers haven’t succeeded in what they set out to do. If you like this sort of thing -- and I do, from time to time -- it's mostly done well here.
Stephen Francis Vasta Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (lighthouseopera.org)
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Editor in Chief
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker Postmaster
Jonathan Woolf MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger