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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Olav Trygvason, opera fragment, Op. 50 (Text: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson) [34:10]
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]
V. Våren (The Last Spring), Op. 33 No. 2 (A. O. Vinje) [8:17]
VI. Henrik Wergeland Op. 58 No. 3 (John Paulsen) [3:30]
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) (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]


Edvard Grieg as Wagnerian? The mind boggles! Here we have a real rarity, a fragment of Grieg’s incomplete opera Olav Trygvason. No musician in Europe could escape the centrifugal force that was Richard Wagner, not even one as disinclined to vast forms as Edvard Grieg. It can even be argued that much of what was composed later – Strauss, Mahler, Wolf, Debussy, Sibelius, Elgar – was an attempt to break out of Wagner’s spell, and to create new forms after the watershed he represented. For Grieg, the search for an original musical voice also had wider implications. Norway was, in Grieg’s youth, ruled by the Danes. Developing a distinctively regional identity was an essential part in the creation of a new Norwegian nation. This was an exciting period artistically, inspiring writers like Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and Grieg was very conscious of the role of his music in the creative renaissance of his time. I cannot recommend too highly the seminal book by Daniel M Grimley, Grieg: Music, Landscape and Norwegian identity (see review), a brilliant analysis of the relationship between Grieg’s music and the context in which he composed. Indeed, it is superlative for its summary of cultural theory as well as for its exceptional musical insight, and a model for understanding music history in general. Understanding a composer’s context shapes any meaningful assessment of his work.

Olav Trygvason, started in 1873 and added to intermittently but never completed, was a conscious attempt by Grieg and Bjørnson, to write a specifically Norwegian opera. They chose a saga about the king who brought Christianity to Norway, but the project never got beyond the beginning, where the old Nordic gods are still worshipped. Perhaps that’s why Grieg and Bjørnson didn’t get any further – these are similar gods to those in the Ring. At every point, Grieg seems to find himself drawn back to Wagner, even as he’s trying to write something different. For example, the music for Loki, the Nordic god of fire, inevitably evokes Loge and his “fire” leitmotiv. Here, Loki’s fire will cremate a human sacrifice. The parallels with Brünnhilde’s immolation are inescapable. Similarly, the baritone’s part is reminiscent of Lohengrin, and the choruses evoke the pilgrim choruses in Tannhäuser. Grieg writes the sacrifice’s part for baritone, here sung with requisite depth of tone by Trond Halstein Moe, but Wagner haunts the work so persistently, it’s easy to imagine Grieg’s relief when he gave up and went on to work on Peer Gynt, his “real” liberation from Wagner. It’s entertaining enough, and pleasant to listen to, though the third scene is very weak, half-heartedly modelled on choruses from Russian opera.

Bjørnson’s long poem Foran Sydens Kloster (At the Cloister Gate) might have supplied a text for Janàček or Verdi, such is its over the top pathos. A girl has just seen her father murdered by her beau who then tries to rape her, so she escapes to a convent even though she still lusts for the killer. It tells us much about Grieg that he sets the poem with extreme reserve. The form is simple: two voices interchange without much colour in the parts, so it’s up to the singers to add depth in their interpretation. Kringelborn’s light, clean soprano is well known, nicely contrasted with the maturity and dignity of Kosmo’s nun. Kosma is in fact quite young – she just sings with gravitas. 

Foran Sydens Kloster is significant because it shows how Grieg, even at this early stage in his career, intuited that vast extravaganzas were not his natural metier. It’s quite fascinating to hear it as a bridge between Olav Trygvason and the songs which, with the piano works, represent Grieg’s true genius. On this recording we have the six songs Grieg himself orchestrated during the 1890s. The first two are familiar from Peer Gynt. After reading Grimley’s book, I appreciated Solveig’s Song better than before. The vocalise refrain is especially haunting because it allows the voice to breathe “into” it as if it were a call to carry across great distances. In Norwegian folk music, there are many types of calls so people could communicate in the mountains, and of course Solveig is singing as she thinks of Peer, thousands of miles away. Marita Solberg s breath control floats the refrain as if it were disembodied, ready to float into space and cover the distance. 

Similarly, although Fra Monte Picino ostensibly tells of Italian newlyweds, the vocal line is unmistakably Grieg and “Norwegian”. The long, searching lines of the first theme spring from the same sense of spatial projection we heard in Solveig’s refrain, contrasted with the jaunty, bouncing second theme. Grieg breaks the phrases in the text ever so subtly to create liveliness. The voice part is matched by deft, choppy string playing, vaguely reminiscent of Scandinavian fiddling figures. The piano version of En Svane is exquisite. It was a favourite of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who sang it hauntingly. In this orchestration; the magical piano part is muted, single chords on the harp evoking the stillness on the silent lake. Similarly, Henrik Wergeland is overshadowed by quite theatrical orchestration, cymbals and massed strings displaying almost cinematic grandeur. It’s understandable since Wergeland is glamourised in this text as “Norway’s champion”. In real life, Wergeland was an early 19th century poet, not a Hollywood type at all. 

Våren lends itself better to larger ensemble, the ebb and flow of the vocal line creating a strong framework. Listening to the interplay between assertive figures and the more inward, I wondered whether this unusual syntax reflects the nuances of spoken language in some way. Ved Rondane was orchestrated by Johan Halvorsen rather than Grieg himself, but retains the gentle nostalgia. 

This is an excellent recording which gives a lot of insight into Grieg’s music, because it shows him writing for larger forms. Yet, was opera really a “larger” form for Grieg? His songs and piano pieces, and the amazingly original Haugtussa may not be blockbusters in the conventional sense, but they are so concentrated and so complex that they are masterpieces in miniature. Listening to this unusual recording was immeasurably enhanced by having read Grimley’s inspirational book. This BIS series is excellent, doing for Grieg what the label did, magnificently, for Sibelius.

Anne Ozorio

see also Review by Göran Forsling 




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