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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1874/88) [15:34]
Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, Op. 55 (1891-2) [17:15]
Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak (1866/92) [7:52]
Old Norwegian Melody with Variations, Op. 51 (1891/1904) [24:29]
Bell Ringing, Op. 54 No. 6 (1904) [3:59]
Bergen Philharmonic/Ole Kristian Ruud
rec. Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway, February 2003, June 2004, November 2005
BIS BIS-SACD-1591 [70:50]
Experience Classicsonline

The popular Peer Gynt suites are the featured works here - even an audiophile enterprise like BIS has to consider the market. This is probably also the first time since the 1950s - when Odd Gruner-Hegge's performance with the Oslo Philharmonic appeared in RCA's budget Camden line - that a Norwegian conductor and orchestra have recorded any of the Peer Gynt music together.
Ole Kristian Ruud's readings have their moments. The Bergen orchestra's fine principal woodwinds - the crisp flute, the vibrant oboe, the tender, caressing clarinet - make something special out of the over-familiar Morning Mood. I enjoyed the warm accounts of Åse's Death and Ingrid's Lament, both played as broad, flowing andantes rather than funereal trudges. Best is Peer Gynt's Homecoming: Ruud makes the turbulent storm music, bordering on movie-melodrama stuff, taut and convincing, and the woodwinds again produce a lovely transition into the orchestra-only version of Solvejg's Song. But the conductor doesn't, or perhaps can't, find anything special in the marches - In the Hall of the Mountain King and the Arabian Dance - although he shapes them well. Overall, these native sons and daughters fail to capture the music's folklike flavor as did Fjeldstad (Decca), a Norwegian, drawing clear, airy textures from the LSO; and Berglund (EMI), a Finn (not even a Scandinavian!) eliciting crisp, lilting rhythms from the Staatskapelle Dresden.
No, it's the rest of the program that makes this disc a must-have, particularly the Old Norwegian Melody with Variations, which, it's safe to say, has never sounded so good, either musically or technically. The clear, wistful theme is longer and more discursive than that of, say, the Enigma Variations, and undergoes a comparable range of transformations. Some episodes are buoyant and rhythmic, others searching and expansive; we even hear a gracious waltz and a bit of a military march along the way. With the composer adopting what is, for him, an unusually adept and diverse instrumental palette - not just in his blended timbres, but in the layered textures - this piece becomes a marvelous showcase for the orchestra.
Grieg originally conceived the Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak as a piano piece. In his wind-band arrangement - there also exists a transcription for full orchestra, by Johan Halvorsen - the full, dark sonority at the start, blending chalumeau clarinets with other low instruments, sets the right tone; in short order, a single poised, elegiac trumpet brightens the texture, if not the mood. In the central section, Grieg deploys the reeds judiciously as a contrast while avoiding the wheezy sound produced in writing where large clarinet sections dominate the high range.
Finally, the transcription of Bell Ringing, another piano original, is effective. If the orchestra can't replicate the chiaroscuro effects that a pianist can create with adroit pedalling, it compensates with more natural sustaining power. After several minutes of Grieg's pre-Impressionist "wash" of textures, however, the concluding chordal cadence is startling.
I cannot over-praise the playing of the Bergen Philharmonic. I've already cited the excellent woodwinds. The strings produce a soft-edged, velvety sound that is especially fetching in the quieter pages and in moments of delicacy, and they spin out lovely crescendos and decrescendos. The brasses are secure and clean, yet unfailingly tactful.
The engineering is mostly superb -- the trombone solos register with particular depth, while the softer playing retains an almost tangible presence. Here and there, as so frequently happens nowadays, timpani rolls tend to obscure orchestral detail -- but I only heard this in frontal stereo; perhaps the problem disappears in surround playback.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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