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Edvard Hagerup GRIEG (1843-1907) and Henrik IBSEN (1828-1906)
Peer Gynt (1874/75) [112.42]
Concert version of Henrik Ibsen’s play prepared by Svein Sturla Hungnes
Peer Gynt – Håkon Hagegård (baritone), Svein Sturla Hungnes (actor)
Solveig – Marita Solberg (soprano and actor)
Anitra – Ingebjørg Kosmo (mezzo), Andrea Bræin Hovig (actor)
1st Herd Girl – Kari Postma (soprano)
2nd Herd Girl – Kilde Haraldsen Sceen (soprano)
3rd Herd Girl - Ingebjørg Kosmo (mezzo),
Thief - Ikka Leppänen (baritone)
Receiver – Torbjørn Gulbrandsøy (baritone)
Ingrid/Woman in Green - Andrea Bræin Hovig (actor)
Hegstad Farmer / Mountain King / Captain – Bjørn Willberg Andersen (actor)
Boyg / Monsieur Ballon / Stranger / Begriffenfeldt / Button Moulder – Ståle Bjørnhaug (actor)
KorVest (Bergen Vocal Ensemble)
Arve Moen Bergset (Hardanger Fiddle)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Ole Kristian Ruud
Recorded June 2003, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS-SACD-1441/42 [53.29 + 60.01]


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Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt has become so familiar, so hackneyed that it is difficult to take it seriously, to take it on its own terms rather then hearing it as another piece of background muzak. However, the familiar pieces are only half the story.

These discs from the Bergen Philharmonic, under Ole Kristian Ruud, not only give us Grieg’s complete music but interleave it with substantial extracts from Ibsen’s play. From this we get a very real feel for how the Ibsen/Grieg Peer Gynt would work as a dramatic entity.

One of the charms of the set is hearing how Grieg weaves snatches of the familiar themes into the fabric of the rest of the work; so that the prelude to Act 2 (Ingrid’s Lament) has echoes of ‘Ase’s Death’ and fragments of ‘Morning’ crop up later in that Act. There are also lesser-known pieces that stand out; these are pieces that never made it into Grieg’s concert suites and so never became as familiar. The Herd Girl’s duet from Act 2 is a gem as is the ‘Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter’. This latter was replaced by ‘Anitra’s Dance’ in the concert suite.

But the scene in the Hall of the Mountain King displays another advantage of this disc: the way the individual movements, dialogue and melodrama can build into a substantial set-piece. The scene starts with the familiar movement, made all the more exciting by the presence of the chorus. The dialogue is interrupted by the ‘Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter’ and then is completed by ‘Out of the Mountain King’s Hall’, an exciting musical tableau in which Peer is chased by the Trolls and which nicely balances the opening ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’.

Act 3 closes with the death of Peer’s mother, Ase. The prelude to the scene, the well known ‘Ase’s Death’, also underscores the point at which Peer fantasizes about his mother taking a magical sleigh-ride to heaven.

The process of building a set-piece out of fragments is also seen in the Arabian scene in Act 4, here we have the Arabian Dance, which includes chorus and a solo for Anitra, Anitra’s Dance, Peer’s Serenade and a closing orchestral interlude. All are linked by dialogue and melodrama to make a satisfying sequence. This is closely followed by Solveig’s Song, made all the more poignant by the Arab scene which precedes it.

For the opening of Act 5 Grieg provides an atmospheric storm at sea followed by a ship-wreck; in effect a mini two-part tone poem. The end of the play, when the ageing Peer returns to Solveig, is rescued from potential bathos by the way that Grieg intertwines Solveig’s Lullaby with the choral Whitsuntide Hymn to create something that is almost transcendent.

It is difficult to believe that Grieg had so much trouble writing this music; it took him 18 months of hard work. But the result fits well with Ibsen’s text. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra give exemplary performances under Ole Kristian Ruud, making even the most hackneyed of movements sound new-minted. For two pieces, they add a real Hardanger Fiddle to the ensemble. Though the Halling and Springar dances are original compositions by Grieg, they are shot through with his knowledge of the Hardanger Fiddle folk repertoire.

The musicians are supported by a fine cast of singers and actors. Håkan Hagegård is luxury casting as the singing voice of Peer. Marita Solberg both sings and speaks Solveig most affectingly. Ingebjørg Kosmo is the charming singing voice of Anitra. A cast of six actors speak Ibsen’s text but the bulk of the work goes to Svein Sturla Hungnes who takes the part of Peer Gynt. His expressive voice holds the attention even though speaking Norwegian.

And there lies the problem with this set; there is rather a lot of spoken text, the set comes over rather like a radio play. And effective though this is, not everyone will appreciate so much Norwegian dialogue. Personally I love the sound of the Norwegian language but this won’t be to everyone’s taste. But if so much dialogue bothers you, then there are a number of other fine performances of Peer Gynt which include much if not all of the music. For me, these discs provide a wonderfully refreshing view of Grieg’s music, in fine idiomatic performances. They have an essential place on my library shelves.

Robert Hugill







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