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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Lyric Pieces

CD 1
Lyric Pieces (8), Book 1, Op. 12 (1867)
Lyric Pieces (8), Book 2, Op. 38 (1883)
Lyric Pieces (6), Book 3, Op. 43 (1886)
Lyric Pieces (7), Book 4, Op. 47 (1885-1888)
CD 2
Lyric Pieces (6), Book 5, Op. 54 (1891) 
Lyric Pieces (6), Book 6, Op. 57 (1893)
Lyric Pieces (6), Book 7, Op. 62 (1895)
CD 3 
Lyric Pieces (6), Book 8, Op. 65 (1897)
Lyric Pieces (6), Book 9, Op. 68 (1898)
Lyric Pieces (7), Book 10, Op. 71 (1901)
Aldo Ciccolini (piano)
rec. Paris, 2004 (exact date and location not given)
CASCAVELLE VEL3083 [3 CDs: 61:23 + 62:33 + 59:04]
 


I must admit to a liking for Aldo Ciccolini’s playing. His recordings of the work of Erik Satie were the ones which seemed to have the most verve and élan out of the versions I used to cherry-pick from my father’s collection. His unaffected but sensitive style equally suits the often deceptively simple sounding Lyric Pieces by Edvard Grieg.
 
As far as I can tell, this is the only complete recording of these infinitely attractive works currently available, and as such has an inherent value to serious collectors and record libraries. I can say from the outset that nobody need feel concern about the quality of either the playing or the recording, both of which are very good indeed. Taking the recorded sound first, the piano is set in an acoustic with acceptable resonance, and at a distance which gives a sensible perspective to the listener. The piano sound is indeed very classy, but as the title suggests, the music demands more lyrical expressiveness than shuddering bass notes or ethereal resonance – the art is in the playing, and Ciccolini is no slouch when it comes to melodic phrasing, legato and alert characterisation.
 
One disc which should be on any piano collector’s shelves is the classic 1974 recording which Emil Gilels made for Deutsche Grammophon. His is of course a selection of the Lyrische Stücke, but the grand master’s surprising application to the cause of Grieg’s miniatures resulted in a classic album which is still largely unsurpassed in the quality of playing. Comparing extracts from a complete edition against edited highlights is a little unfair, but what I am interested is in the area of interpretation. Take the beautiful and justly famous Arietta which opens Op.12. Ciccolini forms an elegant structure, which rises and falls in sympathetic rubati, phrasing forward in the first half of the melody, reigning in just a fraction in the second, shaping the melody just as you can imagine Grieg might have wished. Gilels is just that little more detailed, adding in little micro-rubati which add a strange richness to the simple lines, without disturbing the flow or basic rhythm. Gilels takes as his second choice the opening Berceuse of the Op.38 set, and listening to Ciccolini first we find a gorgeously expressive line in the opening, the notes in the melody falling almost invisibly behind that of the accompaniment – Errol Garner in classical mode. His central section has nobility and poise, and after that surprise of contrast from the composer we are lulled back into repose with the same cradle-rocking movement. Gilels is a good 34 seconds quicker than Ciccolini but seems little quicker, gaining little fractions of time however with a tiny shortening of the syncopated rhythm at the end of each bar. He leaves less time between sections as well, and his central section is gentler, and with closer microphone placement we get a generally more intimate feeling, until you realise that his climax is delayed, being placed at the height of the development section, which falls into that golden-section slot two thirds before the end of the piece. Ciccolini holds back at this point, the peak of this melody being more the top-of-the-stairs for him, rather than that of a Norwegian mountain top.
 
It is quite remarkable how such different interpretations can stand side by side, and still be found to work on their own terms. At no point did I feel that I was missing anything with Ciccolini, but the differences in character between the Russian and the Italian temperament mean that pianists will no doubt argue passionately about the rights and wrongs of either approach. If you are in any doubt, dip into some numbers like Petit oiseau in op.43 (Disc 1 track 20) which flies superbly. In fact, I can find very little to fault Ciccolini anywhere. Comparing op.47 no.2, Feuille d’album I suppose there is a little of the ‘fat note’ syndrome in his slightly heavy melodic touch, but with the folk element hinted at in this delightful piece there could be more than a little method in his mood. Gilels is lighter in general, but his pictures are more romantic – the sepia edged with flowers and beautifully kept, rather than well-thumbed and appreciated by all on a regular basis. Mélodie op.47 no.3 carries on from this on Gilels’ collection, so it is interesting again to hear how both players sing with the extended lyrical line, Gilels portraying the line in a more vocal way, Ciccolini a touch more orchestral with the accompaniment, and with a more emphatic rubato toward the end of phrases. Ciccolini is admirably nostalgic in the later opus numbers, and while I now discover I haven’t gone into discs two and three at all I can promise even more delights and deeper insights in the works which emerged from Grieg’s own advancing years. 
 
Coming in at around the £20 mark this three CD set has to be considered something of a bargain as a new recording. Cascavelle cannot really be said to have given this set much of a luxury feel, with informative but brief booklet notes, no information on the recording venue and little about the player. The presentation is not helped by pictures of Aldo looking as if he’s still waiting for the cheque to arrive. This is however more than just a safe recommendation, with Ciccolini’s passion in the Melancholy of op.65 no.3 still ringing in my ears, and the refined joy of the Wedding Day which concludes that set, confirming his place as one of the great pianists of our time.
 
Dominy Clements  
 

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