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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Music for String Orchestra
Holberg Suite, Op.40 (1884, orch. 1886) [18:35]
Last Spring from the Two Elegiac Melodies, Op.34/1 (1880) [4:21]
Two Melodies, Op.53: No.1 ‘Norwegian’ [3.42]; No.2 ‘The First Meeting’ (1870) [3:43]
‘At the Cradle’ from the Two Lyric Pieces, Op.68/2 [3.07]
‘The Wounded Heart’ from the Two Elegiac Melodies, Op.34/2 (1880) [3.18]
Two Nordic Melodies, Op.63 (1895): No.1 ‘In Folk Style’ [6:51]; No.2a ‘Cow Call’ [1.56]; No.2b ‘Peasant Dance’ [2.04]
‘The Death of Åse’ from the Peer Gynt Suite No.1, Op.46/1b (1875) [4:20]
Oslo Camerata/Stephan Barratt-Due
rec. 25-28 August 2005, Lommerdalen Church, Oslo, Norway. DDD
NAXOS 8.557890 [51:58]

 

"His music carries the fragrance of his native pine-woods into the concert room…"

J.A. Fuller Maitland (editor of Grove) on Grieg

This superbly performed release from Naxos could have been an even better release. Sadly it proves rather short measure because of a disappointing programme design. At only 51 minutes there is ample room to have accommodated more scores that would have increased the desirability of the issue. The reason for this shortfall is that Naxos have restricted themselves by selecting strictly strings-only works. In the Two Lyric Pieces, Op.68 only the second piece, At the Cradle, is included. The first piece Evening in the Mountains is not a pure string work as it features an oboe and horn, and consequently does not feature. For the same reason the strings-only work The Death of Åse is the single representative from the eight pieces that comprise the Peer Gynt suites. For some strange reason the Two Elegiac Melodies, Op.34; the Last Spring and The Wounded Heart are separated from each other.

Grieg is one of the most popular nationalist composers of the nineteenth century. Music writer Jan Swafford considers his scores to be, "marked by graciousness of effect, dewy lyricism and wistful harmonies." Grieg was a master of the miniature composition an aspect of his genius so aptly shown here. One of the finest scores on this issue is the Holberg Suite where Grieg translates a set of baroque dances into a contemporary idiom. The other string works are derived from his earlier songs or piano pieces, of which Grieg wrote a very large number. The Two Elegiac Melodies: Last Spring and The Wounded Heart are among his most popular works.

Grieg wrote the 1884 score From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the Olden Style, which is more commonly known as the Holberg Suite, Op.40 as a commission to mark the bicentenary of the birth of the acclaimed writer Ludwig Holberg. Set in five movements and originally for piano, it was arranged by the composer for string orchestra. Here Grieg adopts the form of the Baroque suite, with its traditional French dance movements, re-interpreted through the neoclassical prism of his own time.

For his Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 he arranged two songs from a set of twelve settings of poems by Aasmund Olavson Vinje. The songs: Last Spring and The Wounded Heart, published in orchestral form in 1881, have won great popularity in this form.

The Two Melodies, Op. 53: Norwegian and The First Meeting were published in 1891. These are also arrangements of earlier songs, the first of the pair is the twelfth of the Vinje settings My Goal, and the second an arrangement of an 1870 setting of a poem by Bjørnson, The First Meeting.

Grieg wrote a very large number of short piano pieces published in a series of nine collections of Lyric Pieces. The arrangement for strings of Two Lyric Pieces, Op. 68, comprises the fourth and fifth of a set of six piano pieces, published in 1899. The second of these is a lullaby At the Cradle. The first Lyric piece Evening in the Mountains is not included.

The Two Nordic Melodies, Op. 63 are also known in versions for piano. The first piece In Folk Style uses a melody by Fredrik Duc, the Norwegian-Swedish ambassador to France, who had sent it to Grieg. The second piece brings together Cow Call and Peasant Dance arranged from a set of 25 Norwegian folk-dances and folk-songs first published in 1870.

Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt follows the activities of its picaresque hero in his various adventures. The score was cast in some 23 movements and written for a small theatre orchestra and chorus in 1875. After it had become evident that the play in its original form would not be frequently revived Grieg extracted eight movements in 1888 and 1891 and re-orchestrated them for his two Peer Gynt Suites: No. 1, Op. 46 and No. 2, Op. 55. The only piece from the set of eight included on this release is The Death of Åse.

The string orchestra on this release is the Oslo Camerata which was established in 1997. It is now ‘Ensemble in residence’ at the Barratt-Due Institute of Music in Oslo. The Camerata has had its own concert series at the Old Masonic Lodge in Oslo. Under the direction of their leader Stephan Barratt-Due the Camerata prove a first-class string ensemble and one of the finest that I have heard for some time. If I had heard this recording ‘blind’ and was told that the ensemble were players taken from the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic, I would have been fully convinced, such is the quality of their performances. The playing from the Norwegian ensemble has a silvery tone, with a robust ‘edge’ to their timbre, that feels highly appropriate in these scores. The five pieces that make up the Holberg Suite are performed with assurance and considerable character. The strong melody of the Praeludium with its restless rhythm is given a spirited performance and the poignant Air, in the style of a Norwegian folk-song, is played with real affection. I especially enjoyed the interpretation of The Death of Åse. The Oslo players in this tender lament, convincingly convey Grieg’s haunting melodies of Åse’s death, to magical effect.

The booklet notes from Keith Anderson are concise and reasonably informative. The Naxos engineers have provided a bright sound quality which I found a touch too intense in the violins. The cellos and double basses are recorded closer than ideal.

From my collection the finest alternative recordings that contain virtually identical programmes are: Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon 437 520-2. These brightly recorded performances from 1999 offer beautiful playing and considerable character. The 2005 recording from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Ole Kristian Ruud on BIS-SACD-1491 has won many admirers for its full sound and fresh and poetic performances. In the opinion of many commentators the finest version of the Holberg is from Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon 439 010-2, c/w the Peer Gynt Suites.

Michael Cookson


 



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