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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Concert Overture: In Autumn, Op. 11 [11.06]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 [29.23]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 64 [31.17]
Håvard Gimse (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 13-15 May 2003 DDD
NAXOS 8.557279 [71.47]

 

This excellent CD should be regarded as good news for Grieg lovers everywhere, since it is billed as the first volume of what Naxos plan to be a complete edition of his music. Naxos has already done great things for Grieg’s piano music (all fourteen volumes of it, played by Professor Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, who has made a lifetime speciality of its performance and interpretation, including the definitive book on the subject). If this recording is anything to go by, the rest of his oeuvre is going to receive similarly sympathetic treatment.

Most buyers will probably buy this disc for the Piano Concerto (as Naxos clearly intend, packaging the jewel-case inside an extra cardboard sleeve giving the Piano Concerto top billing). The rest of the disc, though, is also well worth having; the opening piece is the (now) rarely-heard concert overture In Autumn, which used to be a Beecham speciality and which that conductor recorded on a famous all-Grieg LP made in 1956. Comparison between the two does not in any way find the new performance at a disadvantage. Engeset secures clear textures, crisp articulation from the strings and plenty of rhythmic discipline throughout the piece and, although some of the woodwind phrasing in the slower central section is not as immediately characterful as that to be found on the Beecham recording, the vivacity of the outer sections more than compensates. The acoustic of the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow adds a pleasing bloom to the string tone and the recording is balanced very naturally. The dynamic range is just as you might find in the concert-hall and, all in all, the overture is given a splendid and rousing performance.

The same goes for the Symphonic Dances which, although nowhere near as impressive as Rachmaninov’s later work of the same name, is probably Grieg’s most imposing work for orchestra alone (and certainly more successful than his early Symphony). The four sections are designed along similar lines to the standard four symphonic movements, but Grieg does not seem to have objected to one of the dances being played on its own. Beecham, again, was fond of the second, which he recorded in the collection mentioned above. The four dances are based on Norwegian folk tunes and are full of charming melodies; to a great extent, they are a Scandinavian version of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and are equally imaginatively orchestrated. Grieg’s skills as a miniaturist are very much in evidence here and the RSNO give as winsome a performance of each movement as one could wish. The slightly spare string tone adds to the delicacy that the orchestra achieves and I would put this some way ahead of the recording by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi on DG; the weight of sound on that performance overpowers the work in places. You need look no further than the very opening bars of the first work to hear the rhythmic bounce that adds so much to the present performance; the string exchanges that follow (track 5, 0’51") typify the crispness of approach that characterises the entire performance. In short, this is as good a performance of this work as one will find, and of itself makes the disc an excellent buy.

What, then, of the Piano Concerto? Competition here is extremely thick on the ground and includes some of the biggest names imaginable, with particularly highly regarded recordings by Kovacevich, Lupu, Curzon, Perahia, Lipatti and Michelangeli to be taken into consideration. Personally, I have never understood the fuss made of the Kovacevich and Lupu recordings of this work, since both seem to me to be too pedestrian to convey the full power of what is, after all, a truly magnificent work. Although beautiful and poetic, these two performances always strike me as reinforcing Debussy’s remark that Grieg’s music was a "pink sweet stuffed with snow" rather than dispelling that image. Perahia and Curzon both convey all the poetry that one could wish for but with much more drive (Perahia especially, in a live recording) in the outer movements. Lipatti, with all the drive and poetry one would wish, seems to tap into the essence of Grieg with uncanny sympathy – a characteristic mark of almost all of his relatively small number of recordings, but since his recording was made in 1947 the sound may be a barrier for some listeners. In terms of sheer bravura and astonishing élan, though, Michelangeli is far ahead of all others on the BBC Legends release of a live 1965 performance.

This present performance, then, has a great deal to live up to. Fortunately, it does and, minor quibbles aside, I would say that it deserves to be regarded as one of the best recordings of the work to have appeared in recent years (certainly since Perahia; I felt that last year’s much-praised release played by Leif Ove Andsnes was good, but not marked out by any particularly individual touches). The first movement is delivered with a judicious mix of panache and coolness and, in the famous opening flourish, Gimse drives the music hard, which I have always felt is the best way to give this music’s athleticism fullest exposure. The whole movement is rhythmically strong and the only criticism I would make is that, at the very end (track 2, 12’30") where the opening chords return, Gimse slows down before accelerating to the end. This is exactly what he does at the start so it is valid enough, but where the start allows room for the rhythm to be slightly distended like this, the end of the movement really needs strong forward momentum to have its fullest impact and, here, is awkwardly held up. That apart, though, the movement goes splendidly and the strings particularly achieve a beautiful veiled tone in their many piano passages.

The second movement is particularly successful as Gimse strikes a perfect balance between dreaming and movement. Too often, the embellishments are stretched to breaking point by soloists trying to be ‘poetic,’ but Gimse makes them sparkle as well (would the image of ice droplets on trees alongside a fjord be too fanciful?). The orchestra’s contribution in this movement is superb; Engeset has obviously gone to some trouble to balance the string lines so that they are all audible (listen for the inner lines at track 3, 1’25"), where the accompaniment is so often reduced to generalised romantic mushiness. The pause between the solo horn’s repetition is not over-long, either (1’48").

The finale has plenty of energy and, although Gimse does not match Michelangeli’s hair-raising virtuosity in the coda (who does!?), he still whips through the split octaves very swiftly (track 4, 7’41"ff). The only slight disappointment in this movement is that magical moment where the flute solo appears (2’50"), as it is played rather too gently to give the ideal impression of a vista suddenly opening up. The close microphoning also means that the flautist’s every breath is audible, which rather takes away from the seamlessness of the line. Gimse is certainly able to crank up the voltage in the coda and this makes for a rousing, weighty conclusion, including some excellent work from the brass. The only minor problem here is that the piano itself does seem to be suffering a bit by the end. I felt that it sounds a little underpowered throughout, especially at the bass end, but this may be more to do with Gimse’s wish to avoid gratuitous rhetorical noises. In any case, there is a brief patch of ugly tuning at 9’30" in the last movement; in concert, this would pass by unnoticed, but might be a bit jarring on repeated listening. This, though, is a very small point.

All in all, this is a most impressive disc, with two superb performances of the orchestral works and one of the most individual readings of the Piano Concerto to have come along in over a decade. At budget price it is worth anyone’s money and is the perfect place to start a Grieg collection.

Em Marshall

see also review by John Phillips

 



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