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Download: Classicsonline

Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1874/88) [14:39]
Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, Op. 55 (1891-2) [17:09]
Det første møde, Op. 21 No. 1 (1870) [3:48]*
Den Bergtekne, Op. 32 (1878) [5:59]+
Six Orchestral Songs, EG 177 (1891/94) [24:10]*+
Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)*
Palle Knudsen (baritone)+
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Malmö Symphony Orchestra Concert Hall, Sweden, May and August 2006
NAXOS 8.570236 [65:45]
Experience Classicsonline

Grieg's songs don't get much play on the recital platform, nor do the few that he orchestrated turn up in concert with any frequency. As conductor Engeset points out in his booklet note, the Norwegian texts, readily understood by few, have hindered audience appreciation - Solvejg's Song in one or another mediocre German translation simply doesn't come off as well. And the songs Naxos offers do get locked in a structure of sometimes repetitive two-bar phrases, perhaps Grieg's major compositional limitation. But the dramatic atmosphere is even stronger in the songs than in the symphonic music, with the orchestral backings providing scope for real expression. I suspect that, were the songs better known, Grieg would overcome the parochial reputation he has in some quarters.

It's the orchestral "accompaniments" -- rather more than that, I'd say -- that come off best in these performances. Under Engeset's direction, the Malmö Symphony plays handsomely and sensitively. String lines are vibrant and expressively shaped; woodwind soloists are by turns suave and piquant; and the brasses make impressive sounds.

But these are songs, and I wanted the singing to be better. Inger Dam-Jensen is a lyric soprano with a rich, warm midrange. She sings feelingly, if sometimes heavily - some notes in that midrange nag below dead center - and she's also more closely miked than she needs to be. In Det første møde - described by Engeset as a "nature-idyll" - Dam-Jensen's upper range floats and occasionally soars; elsewhere, as in Solvejg's Song, the top notes are strained or disconnected. Den Bergtekne is the longest of Grieg's orchestral songs, according to the conductor; it's certainly laid out on a symphonic scale, with two horns injecting an ominous note into the sombre string orchestra. It really wants a firmer, ringier voice than Palle Knudsen's; his shallow, monochromatic baritone becomes increasingly tremulous as it ascends above the staff. In fairness, Knudsen sounds altogether more settled in Henrik Wergeland, the last of the group billed as "Six Orchestral Songs," assembling songs from the composer's various opera, though who assembled them, or on what rationale, is never discussed.

Albums showcasing the less familiar Grieg frequently tack the two Peer Gynt suites onto the program, presumably to lure prospective buyers. The suites appeared on the recent Bis release (BIS-SACD-1591) featuring an excellent performance of the Old Norwegian Romance with Variations, and here they are again. One understands the commercial impulses behind these decisions, but for serious collectors and listeners, the prospect of endless duplication looms, much as it did in the early days of CD, with Mahler's Wayfarer Songs.

The First Suite, in this instance, justifies its inclusion. The precisely attacked opening chord of Morning Mood is breathtaking -- especially against the CD's utterly silent background -- bespeaking the conductor's unwillingness to take anything for granted, though not all the chords rise to that level; the woodwind trills in the closing pages are alert. Åse's Death flows in a single broad arc, conveying sadness and resignation rather than the tragic weight of bigger-boned performances such as Barbirolli's (EMI). The lilt and grace of Anitra's Dance is properly seductive; whether by chance or by design, Engeset underlines the occasional three-bar pizzicato groupings beneath the four-bar melodic phrases. In the Hall of the Mountain King begins crisply, with the pungent tones of bassoon and contrabassoon more strongly felt than usual; the effective buildup eschews the splashy, frenetic energy favored by some.

The Second Suite sounds musical but generic, lacking a similar sense of detailed attention: the Arabian Dance, for example, misses the distinction of Anitra's Dance. Peer Gynt's Homecoming becomes quite exciting as the turbulence increases; the brasses play their interjections with sharp rhythmic address, and they register with impressive depth in Naxos's engineering. Engeset uses the dynamics to shape the transitional woodwind chorale with purpose. The orchestra-only version of Solvejg's Song is pretty but ordinary - even the finest violin sections don't always capture, or perhaps understand, the feeling of "vocal" phrasing - but the refrains, which can sound like a throwaway, have a dancey lilt, and the airy woodwind chord that ends each refrain subtly opens the texture.

As indicated, the sound is excellent, and Engeset's note makes a strong case for the greatness of the Peer Gynt music, if you're one of the doubters.

Stephen Francis Vasta

see also review by Göran Forsling



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