This year (2007) the musical world will mark the 100th anniversary
of Edvard Hagerup Grieg’s death and we can expect a flood
of new and reissued recordings. BIS were far-seeing enough
to begin a series of the composer’s orchestral music as early
as 2003 and the present issue is the last instalment in this
To most music-lovers Grieg is principally a miniaturist, his
piano pieces and songs arguably his most personal creations and
maybe also the works that come closest to the Norwegian soul.
He wrote some large-scale works of course, the piano concerto
belongs to the most frequently played, the Holberg Suite,
some chamber music, and possibly the third violin sonata
is the masterpiece. No one can deny the Norwegian tone here
with many melodic ideas inspired by the country’s folk music.
I believe most composers want to be remembered for “big” works:
symphonies, even operas. Grieg made attempts in both these
genres but the results were less than satisfying and the
planned opera, a co-production with the greatest Norwegian
author of the time, Nobel Prize Winner Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
Bjørnson, never got further than the three fragments recorded
The idea was to create a Norwegian opera tradition and the
choice of theme was one from long by-gone days: the story
Trygvason, a Viking king who converted Norway to Christianity.
It seems that Bjørnson was the one who lost confidence in
the project and never delivered more than the material available.
Listening to these three scenes, and following the text,
one can understand why. The words are no doubt powerful and
the music is appropriately dynamic and with a forward thrust
one rarely finds with Grieg. That said, one misses a sense
of dramatic development and after 35 minutes one feels that
we are still in a preliminary state. An oratorio perhaps,
or a dramatic cantata, but it feels a long way from the operatic
stage. Still it is fascinating to hear and Grieg’s choral
writing is often impressive while the instrumentation is
more expressive than arguably anywhere else in his orchestral
oeuvre. The choral forces here do an admirable job, the three
soloists deliver their lines with conviction, but I think
this is where the weakness lies: what Bjørnson has created
is cardboard characters, not people of flesh and blood. The
singers do what they can, using all their experience and
vocal accomplishment but they cannot overcome the limitations
of the material.
The early Foran Sydens Kloster is also conceived as
an operatic scene, but this is even more lyrical than dramatic.
it is – Grieg has lavished all his melodic skill on this
score and it is fascinating in its likeness to Mediaeval
ballads with its question–answer structure, and the Heavenly
choir of nuns at the end. I would think this is fairly unknown
music even to Grieg admirers and well worth the acquaintance.
We are treading better-known paths in the six songs with orchestra,
that Grieg orchestrated in 1894-95. The first two are from
the Peer Gynt music and Våren is also often
heard as a purely orchestral piece. Concerning how the title
of that song should be translated I tried at some length
to elucidate this on Musicweb’s Bulletin Board a few months
ago in connection with a review where my colleague Gwyn Parry-Jones
posed the question: What is correct? I enclose my answer
as an appendix to this review.* I have to say right away
that I was really carried away by the singing of Marita Solberg.
Hers is a pure, lyrical voice, very beautiful and with a
bell-like quality at the top. Her singing is natural, unaffected,
warm and innocent. I have seldom heard Våren sung
with such heart-rending inward glow and she still has the
heft to make Fra Monte Pincio tell. The “extra” song
here, Ved Rondane, not orchestrated by Grieg but by
his near-contemporaneous compatriot Johan Halvorsen, has
some melodic turns that verge on the sentimental, but Ms
Solberg avoids falling into the lachrymose trap and sings
it sweetly but naturally. Every lover of fine lyric soprano
voices should rush to the store. Comparisons should be unnecessary
but I couldn’t help listening to a couple of recent issues
with roughly the same material sung by other Norwegian sopranos.
The first, reviewed about two years ago when it was reissued
on Chandos, was Solveig Kringelborn’s fifteen-year-old recording
with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. I heard the concert
preceding the recording and was enthusiastic then but for
some reason there is too much strain in her singing on the
disc. She might have had a bad day. (see review).
The other was a BBC recording of Kirsten Flagstad’s farewell
concert at Royal Albert Hall in 1957, at 62 still singing
with fabulous voice control. This is a much grander reading
and as so often there is no objective truth. Both are valid
but for youthful purity and lyrical beauty Marita Solberg
is hard to beat.
The Bergen Philharmonic today belongs among the best ensembles
in the trade and few orchestras know their Grieg better.
Kristian Ruud has deeper insights in the Bergen master’s
music than most conductors and the recording team has served
him and his fellow musicians well. In multi-channel mode
it is an impressive, atmospheric sound and especially the
big choral outbursts in the third scene of Olav Trygvason are
knock-out pills. There is a fine essay on the music by Erlend
Hovland and the sung texts with English translations are
provided. The BIS production values are as usual high.
Collectors of this series need not hesitate but the disc should be
of interest to many lovers of 19th century music.
Playing some of the Olav Trygvason music at a blindfold
test could be a fascinating climax of a music lovers’ get-together.
I bet someone will say Elgar when hearing the choral end
of scene 1. For me Marita Solberg’s rendition of the orchestral
songs will have an honoured place in the collection.
Gwyn Parry-Jones asks in
his excellent review of Grieg's music for string orchestra
(see review), which is the correct English translation
of "Våren" -
is it "Last Spring" as this Naxos issue has it
or "The last spring" as we normally see it? In
fact neither is correct - linguistically. "Våren" is
literally "The spring" since the Scandinavian languages
don't have the definite article but instead a definite suffix, "-en" in
this case. But "Våren" can also correspond to just "Spring" in
e.g. "Spring is here" which in Norwegian/or Swedish/
is "Våren är här". But this piece of music is originally
a song, a setting of A.O. Vinje's poem of the same title,
the first lines of which read something like "One more
time I was granted to see the spring ..." implying that
this spring was "The last spring", so Naxos's interpretation
is incorrect. GF
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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