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alternatively Crotchet

Edvard GRIEG (1843–1907)
Orchestrated Piano Pieces
Slåtter – Suite for Orchestra, Op. 72 (1903) (orch.Øistein Sommerfeldt) [9:09]*
Norwegian Dances, Op. 35 (1881) (orch. Hans Sitt) [17:34]
Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak, EG107 (1866) (orch. Johan Halvorsen) [7:48]
The Bridal Procession Passes By from Pictures from Folk Life, Op. 19, No. 2 (1871) (orch: Johan Halvorsen) [3:38]
Ballade, Op. 24 (1876) (orch. Geirr Tveitt) [19:35]*
Ringing Bells from Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, No. 6 (1891) (orch. Grieg/Anton Seidl) [4:27]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 2-3 May 2005
* denotes world première recording
NAXOS 8.557854 [62:11]

Like most Nordic composers during the late 19th century also Edvard Grieg had most of his education in accordance with the German school, a fact that he regarded as a limitation. The German heaviness was simply not compatible with the Norwegians’ love of “clarity and brevity” and he mentioned “the Italian light, the richness of Russian colour, and not least the clarity and lightness of France.” When his publisher, Peters Edition, in 1890 suggested that Hungarian-Czech composer Hans Sitt orchestrate what is probably the most well-known music on this disc, the Norwegian Dances, Op. 35, Grieg wasn’t too happy about this and preferred a Frenchman to do it – he suggested Lalo – but the following year Peters published Sitt’s orchestration anyway and it was soon established as the standard version.

Almost 45 years ago I bought my first full-length Grieg LP which, besides the ubiquitous Peer Gynt suites, also contained the Norwegian Dances. The Peer Gynt music was even then a known quantity for me but these dances were a revelation and I fell in love with them at first hearing. The freshness of the melodies, the rhythmic abandon and the colourful orchestration at once singled them out. It was with some disappointment that I found out, while reading the liner notes, that a totally unknown arranger was responsible for the orchestral garb, while Grieg’s original was composed for piano four hands. I soon found out, anyway, that Sitt (1850–1922) made the orchestration during Grieg’s lifetime and thus should have been authorized by the composer, but this wasn’t the case. They are still very appealing and in due time I replaced my mono LP with Neeme Järvi’s version with the Gothenburg Symphony, which ever since has been the benchmark recording. Now Bjarte Engeset presents them with Järvi’s other long term orchestra, the RSNO. Whether this connection is of any importance I don’t know but Engeset is a great conductor in his own right – demonstrated not least in a long series of recordings for Naxos. His readings are on the same exalted level with even more rhythmic springiness. He also makes the most of the contrasts in the music, especially Grieg’s way of composing a middle section with the theme at half speed, which he does in both No. 1 and No. 3.

This technique recurs in the second of the three Slåtter (folk-fiddle dance melodies) that constitute the orchestral suite, arranged by Øistein Sommerfeldt (1919–1994). This is late Grieg. Sommerfeldt worked on these orchestrations for many years while studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, so there is definitely more than a French touch here, which I am sure Grieg would have liked. Extremely self-critical Sommerfeldt revised his orchestrations over and over again and finally decided to scrap the whole project of three suites. In 1979 he came up with a short suite and that is the one we hear on this disc in a world première recording. The folk music elements are very obvious and he also uses tambourine to intensify the rhythmic elements.

Rickard Nordraak (1842–1866) was a composer and friend of Grieg’s, who had brave plans to create national art music based on folk elements. It was a great loss when his life was cut short at the age of 24. Today he is best known as composer of the melody to the Norwegian National Anthem, Ja, vi elsker dette landet¸ which was first performed on 17 May 1864. Grieg “took refuge in music” when he learnt of the demise of his friend and wrote the Funeral March to his memory. Johan Halvorsen wrote the version for symphony orchestra aboard a ship on his way to Grieg’s funeral in Bergen in 1907 and the music was played by a pick-up orchestra at the funeral ceremony. It is built on heavy contrasts: deep sorrow and violent outbreaks of what might be regarded as anger at the loss of a dear friend. The other Halvorsen arrangement is the illustrative The Bridal Procession Passes By. This has always been a popular piece and Grieg recorded it himself twice. It has been orchestrated several times and was included in Peer Gynt at a production in Copenhagen, but Halvorsen’s arrangement was not published until the year after Grieg’s death. It is bright and colourful as are most of Halvorsen’s own compositions.

The most remarkable music on this disc is perhaps Geirr Tveitt’s orchestration of the G minor Ballade. Tveitt was also French-oriented and here he excels in creating a garment that challenges even a Ravel in inventiveness, using harp and celesta to provide softly glittering light. It could be argued that he sometimes is too generous with paint and I believe that Grieg, considering his wish for clarity and transparency, would have complained. Maybe, as Bjarte Engeset says in his highly personal and illuminative liner notes, if Grieg had lived another fifty years and developed further in a modernistic direction, he might have written something like this. As it is Tveitt has created a rich and virtuosic score on a composition that he had often played as a pianist but felt it was really an orchestral work. Tragically and ironically Tveitt believed this score to have been lost in the devastating fire at his home in 1970, when so much of his total oeuvre was destroyed, but Øistein Sommerfeldt found it in the archive of the Norwegian Society of Composers and gave it to the National Library of Norway. Some years later Tveitt’s widow mentioned to Øyvind Nordheim at the Library how sad it was that the manuscript was lost, Nordheim remembered the manuscript and closer study told him that this was Tveitt’s all right. That was in 1989 and two years later it was premièred by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, but this is the first ever recording.

The last piece, Klokkeklang (Ringing Bells) is the only music here that Grieg himself had a finger in. The piano piece, included in the fifth book of Lyric Pieces (1891) was a study in sonorities and harmonies and, as Liv Glaser pointed out in her notes to the collection of Lyric Pieces that I reviewed recently, it actually heralds Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, which didn’t appear until almost twenty years later. This is Grieg at his boldest and most modernistic and the shimmering, almost mystical sounds are deeply fascinating. The German conductor had orchestrated some of the pieces from this book in 1895 and Grieg used these orchestrations for his Lyric Suite in 1905. He didn’t include Klokkeklang in the suite but he made far-reaching revisions of Seidl’s score so with some justification one could say that this is as close to ‘real’ Grieg as we can come on this disc. It has been recorded before, maybe more than once, but I only know a Unicorn recording with the LSO and Norwegian conductor Per Dreier.

One expects great things from the RSNO and with the inspirational Bjarte Engeset at the helm in repertoire he loves they produce playing of the highest order. Even though this is not “The Essential Edvard Grieg” he has today – and especially during this commemorative year – a position in the musical world where even the production outside the central canon is of interest. Grieg completists should jump on the opportunity to amend their collections and more generalist listeners should at least have the Norwegian Dances in a reading that in this case is exceptionally stimulating.

Göran Forsling


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