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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Flagstad Sings Grieg - Her final concert performance
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 7 September 1957

What we have here is a live BBC broadcast recording from a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 7 September 1957. This was the year when the fiftieth anniversary of Edvard Grieg’s death was celebrated and this Prom concert was organised to include only his music. To honour Norway’s greatest composer as worthily as possible they wanted to engage Norway’s most famous singer, Kirsten Flagstad. She had officially retired a couple of years earlier but was enticed to make an isolated departure from her decision to pay tribute to a composer ‘whose music meant so much to me’.

The ten songs she performed that evening have been available before, as part of a disc in the BBC Legends series, issued 12 years ago. Then it was in harness with a Wagner programme from the Royal Festival Hall in 1953 with the same conductor as here, Sir Malcolm Sargent. On the present disc we get also some of the orchestral music by Grieg that was also played. Unfortunately there was no room for the Peer Gynt Suite and the Piano Concerto, but this is still a worthy representation of a great event.

Coming back to the songs after a dozen years confirmed my reaction then, and searching out my review I found it still utterly valid and worth quoting its entirety:

“Kirsten Flagstad had often returned to Grieg’s songs and recorded them on several occasions, around 1949-50 even with Gerald Moore at the piano. It is good to have such a large portion of them here – and with orchestral accompaniments. Truth to tell Flagstad was never an ideal Lieder singer with piano. Her large voice could be quite unwieldy in that intimate format and her trumpet like top notes occasionally adopted a hooting quality. There is very little of this on the present recital. On the contrary, some scooping up to certain notes apart, her magnificent voice is in glorious shape, steady, brilliant, and she sings pianissimo with a delicate shiver in the tone. The sound recording is excellent, fully comparable to many studio made efforts from the same time and even though it is mono there is such fullness and depth that one might believe there is stereo spread. This also goes for the orchestra, whose strings in particular have a delicious lustre. The ever popular Våren is sung with affection and warmth and so is Ved Rondane, one of Grieg’s most lovely songs with its folksong feeling. The lively dancing and dramatic Fyremål fits like a glove to Flagstad and her legendary trumpet tones flash like polished brass. She is warm and inward in Det første møde and has a light touch also in Eros, but when Max Reger, whose orchestration this is, applies thick layers of colours to the canvas, her Wagnerian voice shines like a beacon through it. Even though one can hear that this is not a voice in its very first blossoming it neither sounds decidedly old. It is mature, but it was also in the 1930s, and in the encore, Jeg elsker dig, she actually sounds youthful.”

Concerning the sound a few random comparisons reveal some differences. On the Legends issue the singer sounds rather distant but the sound is clear. On Pristine she is closer and brighter, the string sound is warmer and dynamics slightly wider. The differences are small, at least on my equipment, but obvious, and the grandessa of Flagstad’s singing is overwhelming. One should keep in mind that she was already 62! Anyone who doesn’t own the BBC Legends issue should without delay invest in the present issue. And there are awards beyond the songs. Under Sir Malcolm’s experienced direction we are treated to some gems from Grieg’s orchestral repertoire.

In Autumn is a fairly rare visitor to the concert programmes. It started its life as a piece for piano 4-hands in 1866, when Grieg was 22. That was just a couple of years after his only symphony which he later suppressed. The orchestration is from 1887 and the work is uncommonly dramatic and dynamic to be by Grieg. Lyric Suite has also a chequered history. In 1891 Grieg published Book V of Lyric Pieces for piano. Anton Seidl, then conductor of the New York Philharmonics, arranged four of the six pieces for orchestra in 1894 under the title Norwegian Suite. Not until 1905 did Grieg get an opportunity to see the score and was rather dissatisfied with parts of it. Seidl had worked for years alongside Wagner and was deeply influenced by him and the heavy Germanic orchestration he had provided didn’t rhyme well with Grieg’s lighter style. Since Seidl then was dead Grieg wrote to his widow and asked for permission to revise the score. So he did with three of the pieces. The fourth one he excluded and instead he orchestrated Shepherd Boy for strings only and put it first in his version of the music, which he titled Lyric Suite. The concluding March of the Trolls is a true tour de force with its mercurial opening and the typically national romantic middle section – and then a return to the troll march ending with a fortissimo full stop. In Sargent’s hands this is as riveting a reading as any I’ve heard. The Homage March from the Sigurd Jorsalfar-suite is magnificent and noble – fitting for a king who, according to legend visited Jerusalem and brought home to Norway a shrine with a splinter from Christ’s cross. ‘Jorsalfar’ in reality ‘Jorsalafar’ means ‘He who travelled to Jerusalem’. Andrew Rose’s XR remastering has added extra depth to the orchestral sound and rendered this a worthy demonstration of the capacity of the BBC Symphony Orchestra anno 1957.

This issue is indispensable first and foremost for Flagstad’s admirers but also for those who admire Grieg’s orchestral music in vintage but excellent sound.

Göran Forsling

1. In Autumn, Op. 11 [11:46]
Lyric Suite:
2. 1. Shepherd Boy [5:39]
3. 2. Norwegian March [2:52]
4. 3. Notturno [3:58]
5. 4. March of the Trolls [3:30]
12 Songs Op. 33:
6. No. 2 – Våren (Last Spring) [6:57]
7. No. 1 – Guten (The Youth) [2:55]
8. No. 9 – Ved Rondane (At Rondane) [3:55]
9. No. 12 – Fyremål (The Goal) [3:12]
Sigurd Jorsalfar (Suite) Op. 56:
10. No. 3 – Homage March [8:51]
6 Romances, Op. 39:
11. No. 1 – Fra Monte Pincio (From Monte Pincio) [5:55]
4 Songs Op. 21:
12. No. 1 – Det første Møde (The First Meeting) [4:53]
5 Songs Op. 26:
13. No. 1 – Et håb (Hope) [2:34]
6 Songs Op. 25:
14. No. 2 – En Svane (A Swan) [3:13]
5 Songs Op. 70:
15. No. 1 – Eros [3:59]
Melodies of the Heart, Op. 5:
16. No. 3 – Jeg elsker Dig! (I Love You!) [3:20]



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