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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Complete Songs, Volume 4

Five Poems to texts by John Paulsen, op. 26 (1876), Twelve Melodies to poems by A. O. Vinje, op. 33 (1881), Songs without opus no: Min lille Fugl, Blåbæret, Til L. M. Lindemans Solvbryllup, Til Kirken hun vandrer, Den hvide, røde Rose, Odalisken synger, På Hamars Ruiner, Jenta, Til Generalkonsul Chr. Tønsberg
Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano), Roger Vignoles (pianoforte)
Rec.: 27th April-1st May 2001, Danderyds Gymnasium, Sweden
BIS CD-1257 [67’53"]


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Not so long ago I was reviewing a disc of songs by Carl Loewe in which the composer’s muse seemed to thrive on elaboration. If you want proof that the simplest art is that which touches us most deeply you need go no further than this disc of Grieg. On paper these songs look almost threadbare; often strophic, with simple folk-like melodies and simple chordal accompaniments. You feel they can never express the range of moods that some of this poetry contains. And yet they give the singer all he or she needs to put across the poet’s emotions. The smallest chromatic twist is all the more telling for its sparing use and the few moments where the full power of voice and piano are unleashed are the more effective for their rarity. Above all many, many phrases tug at the heart in a way not easily explained.

The five Paulsen songs are brief and relatively lightweight though still touching, but the Vinje settings seem to me a major work. If not a song cycle in the sense of telling a story – of Grieg’s works, only Haugtussa does this – they are nevertheless unified in their exploration of memories, delusions, dreams and aspirations. For all its apparent simplicity Grieg’s language reaches great heights of subtlety and eloquence, and leaves no doubt that this is – as the informative booklet notes explain – a deeply personal response to a difficult period in Grieg’s life. The poet’s combination of a heartfelt response to nature and a heavy degree of pessimism will remind English listeners of A. E. Housman. One of the poems, "First Things", begins "The first thing you have to do, man,/ Is to die", which reminded me irresistibly of the immortal parody of Housman (alas, I’ve never known who wrote it or how it continues) which begins "What, still alive at twenty-two,/ A clean upstanding lad like you!" I couldn’t help wondering if these Grieg settings were known to George Butterworth, who later captured a similar folk-like simplicity in his Housman cycles. My only query is whether the more affirmative final song rings true. The songs without opus number are minor products but they are all touched with Grieg’s personality which ensures that even the least of them has a certain freshness.

Monica Groop has a voice whose darkish mezzo timbre is nonetheless sufficiently highly pitched to sing the Vinje set without strain in the original keys rather than the downward transpositions of the Peters edition low voice version which a mezzo might be expected to use. My only slight reservation, and I say this with much diffidence, is that certain phrases, if sung in another language, would seem to require more of a legato line rather than a note by note approach. But I am not able to say whether the nature of the Norwegian language affects this. My other reservation does not regard Groop’s singing as such, but the subject of Vinje’s poems refers to himself so often as a man that it seems a little incongruous for them to be sung, however well, by a woman. Normally complete editions use several singers so as to pair up each song with the most suitable voice-type, as well as the right sex, while the pianist remains the same (as in CPO’s Brahms series with Helmuth Deutsch and their Loewe volumes with Cord Garben). A disarming feature of this Grieg series is that so far all four volumes have been sung by Groop, but this is her third pianist in three CDs. I wonder what she does with them. She would be a fickle young lady indeed if she has any reservations over Vignoles’s excellent accompanying; all the same, I shall be interested to see who plays for Volume 5.

Detailed notes, texts and English translations, excellent recording add to the value of this issue. There are masterpieces scattered all through Grieg’s song output; since a fair number of them are on the present disc recommendation becomes automatic.

Christopher Howell

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