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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

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Edvard GRIEG (1843–1907)
Olav Trygvason, opera fragment, Op. 50 (Text: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson) [34:10]
1. Scene 1 [7:46]; 2. Scene 2 [14:59]; 3. Scene 3 [11:22]
4. Foran Sydens Kloster (At the Cloister Gate) Op. 20 (Text: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson) [10:15]
Six Songs with Orchestra [29:03]
5. I. Solveigs Sang (Solveig’s Song), Op. 23 No. 19 (Henrik Ibsen) [5:27]
6. II. Solveigs Vuggevise (Solveig’s Cradle Song), Op. 23 No. 26 (Henrik Ibsen) [4:00]
7. III. Fra Monte Pincio (From Monte Pincio), Op. 39 No. 1 (Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson) [4:58]
8. IV. En Svane (A Swan), Op. 25 No. 2 (Henrik Ibsen) [2:21]
9. V. Våren (The Last Spring), Op. 33 No. 2 (A. O. Vinje) [8:17]
10. VI. Henrik Wergeland Op. 58 No. 3 (John Paulsen) [3:30]
11. Ved Rondane (In the Hills), Op. 33 No. 9 (A. O. Vinje) (arr. Johan Halvorsen) [3:03]
Solveig Kringelborn (soprano) (1, 4), Ingebjørg Kosmo (mezzo-soprano) (2, 4), Trond Halstein Moe (baritone) (1, 2), Marita Solberg (soprano) (5–11);
Bergen Philharmonic Choir (1–3), Kor Vest (Bergen Vocal Ensemble) (1–3), Voci Nobili (4); Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Ole Kristian Ruud
rec. Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway, November 2005 (1–4), June 2004 (5–11)
BIS SACD-1531 [77:38]
 


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 series.
 
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 here.
 
The idea was to create a Norwegian opera tradition and the choice of theme was one from long by-gone days: the story of Olav 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. Beautiful 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. Ole 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.
 
Göran Forsling
 

NOTE
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

 



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