Grieg on a squeezebox?
I had my reservations too, but as the modern concert or classical
accordion is a sophisticated beast with a range close to that
of a grand piano I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised.
Obviously the solo piano pieces can be played ‘straight’ on
the accordion keyboard … and that includes the Peer Gynt
extracts, for which Grieg made his own piano arrangements. For
the sake of comparison I also sampled Emil Gilels’ selection
of Lyric Pieces on DG Originals 449 721 2, a long-time
favourite of mine.
Tokyo-born Mie Miki
took up the accordion at the age of four, going on to study
in Germany and win a clutch of major awards. She has already
recorded other accordion works for BIS, including Gubaidulina’s
Seben Worte for cello, bayan (accordion) and strings.
So how does Grieg
fare on this unwieldy instrument? The Lyric Pieces (Lyriske
stykker) consist of 66 miniatures spread over 10 volumes
and more than three decades. But before we get there Miki kicks
off with a suitably upbeat and colourful Anitra’s Dance
from Peer Gynt, Grieg’s incidental to Ibsen’s play. It’s
clear from the outset that the accordion is very well recorded
indeed, with a nicely extended bass and a sparkling treble.
It’s also clear that Miki has a natural affinity for the music’s
The first of the
Op. 12 set, Norwegian, has some delectable staccato
playing, while the Waltz is well sprung and full
of character. I particularly liked the Watchman’s Song,
with its long, slightly mournful, lines. The dynamic contrasts
may be a little less subtle than one is used to on the piano
but it’s no less appealing for that. Miki has changed the order
of pieces in this collection, which makes for greater contrasts
I was curious to
hear how the accordion, not usually the most agile of instruments,
copes with Grieg’s faerie music. I need not have worried, as
Miki brings off Fairy Dance rather well, with
plenty of point to her playing. The National Song,
with its arresting opening, has real weight, warmth and accuracy
of intonation – no wheezing old squeezebox here. Folk-song
from Op. 38 is similarly blessed, sounding delightfully rustic
into the bargain. There is more virtuosic playing in the ensuing
Waltz, whose rhythms are more than a little reminiscent
of a fairground hurdy-gurdy.
swoops and flutters with surprising delicacy, although perhaps
the more subtle dynamic shading of the piano is harder to bring
off here. That said, the melancholy tread of The Solitary
Traveller is rather better suited to the accordion.
I do like Miki’s nicely contrasting selections, which gives
the listener a chance to sample the accordion’s expressive possibilities.
Just listen to the Little Bird, a miraculous miniature
that has all the deftness and lightness of touch that one might
expect from a piano.
The only piece from
Op. 47 is the Norwegian dance Halling, which gave
me a chance to dip into the Gilels disc. As good as Miki’s playing
undoubtedly is the inner detail and subtle rhythms are just
not as clearly conveyed as they are on the piano. By way of
a riposte Miki then launches into a marvellous, rollicking March
of the Dwarfs from Op.54. And typically she follows
that with something altogether different, the restless, shifting
harmonies of Illusion. This is real nachtmusik,
as is Secret, which has an uncertain, spectral
quality we have not yet heard. The range of sonorities Miki
extracts from the accordion is astonishing and those rising
figures in Secret are strangely haunting as well.
Miki follows those twilight items with Homesickness,
a somewhat angst-ridden piece that eventually modulates
into a cheerier mood at 1:50. These happy memories are soon
clouded by the grey skies of winter, so the Spring Dance
from Op. 17 comes as a welcome, invigorating change. The rhythmic
felicities of this music are superbly realised and one can’t
fail to be impressed by the precision and articulation of Miki’s
playing. The Op. 17 selection ends with the grave – one might
even say slightly dour – Wedding Tune.
Op. 62 is represented
by Gratitude, one of the longer items on this
disc. Miki achieves some striking orchestral sounds but these
lengthier pieces do tend to highlight the sometimes relentless
nature of the accordion’s delivery. As versatile as it is, it
cannot seriously challenge the piano when it comes to musical
nuance and inflection. That is certainly true of the Peasant’s
Song from Op.65, which strikes me as somewhat generalised
on this instrument. Ditto Ballad, which at three-and-a-half
minutes is apt to outstay its welcome.
Thank goodness for
Bestemors menuett, grandmother’s nimble little
minuet from Op. 68, which Miki dispatches with great charm and
wit. This is the kind of music that seems to play to her strengths,
rhythmic and colouristic. The Cradle Song is not
particularly successful though; for all its calming cadences
it has a distracting stridency in places. The two pieces from
Op. 71 are more appealing, especially Once Upon a Time,
with its bright colours and galumphing bass. As Miki has already
demonstrated faerie music holds no terrors for her and she characterises
the mischievous Puck very well indeed.
Miki returns to
Peer Gynt with Aase’s Death. Even though
this is a funereal piece it acquires an extra layer of gloom
on the accordion that makes it sound rather dreary. Not the
ideal piece to end an otherwise engaging collection, but it
seems churlish to complain when Miki so obviously relishes –
and rises to – the challenge.
On the whole Miki
chooses her pieces with sensitivity, but even she cannot transcend
all the limitations of the accordion - the inevitable swells
and surges, though judiciously managed, become a little wearying
after a while. That said it’s an interesting programme persuasively
played and atmospherically recorded.