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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 (1868) [30:34]
Six Lyric Pieces, Book VIII, Op.65 (1896) (From Early Years [4:41]; Peasant’s Song [2:22]; Melancholy [4:44]; Salon [1:56]; Ballad [4:12]; Wedding Day at Troldhaugen [6:28])
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No.2 in A, S215 (1839, perf.1857, pub. 1863) [21:45]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitayenko
rec. 1990, venue not stated (actually Grieghallen, Bergen). DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS VIRGO 3 91369 2 [77:24]


The works on this CD have been around the block several times, separately or together, though none the worse for that. First released in 1991, then reissued at mid-price, it now reappears at bargain price. The matrix number suggests that the recording has been re-mastered. 

To complicate matters, this version of the Grieg Piano Concerto is also available at around the same price on HMV 5 86729 2, more appropriately coupled with Beecham’s excerpts from Peer Gynt, a CD available only in HMV stores or online, but well worth seeking out for Beecham’s contribution alone. There is also a 2-CD Virgin set with the Grieg Piano Concerto and solo piano pieces (5 61745 2). This version of the Grieg Concerto also appeared as part of a 2-CD anthology, ‘Leif Ove Andsnes – A Portrait’, in 2002, when it was adjudged “superb … not quite in the Kovacevich or Perahia class but very, very close” by John Phillips on this website. 

The Grieg Concerto on all these CDs is not to be confused with Andsnes’ own later award-winning recording with the Berlin Phil under Jansons, more conventionally coupled with the Schumann Piano Concerto. To add to the confusion, this later recording is also about to be reissued, still at full price, coupling the Grieg Piano Concerto and some solo piano pieces, as ‘Ballad for Edvard Grieg’, EMI 3 94399 2.

The impulse-buyer, looking to purchase his or her first CD of these works, will find very little information in the minimalist booklet of notes. In fact, the statement there that “this youthful work [is] often compared to the concerto by Schumann” highlights one of the drawbacks: having listened to the excellent advocacy of the Grieg on this CD and wishing to investigate the link with Schumann, he will discover that nearly all the recommended versions of the latter are coupled with the Grieg. 

The novice will also be misled by the statement in the booklet that Grieg composed six books of Lyric Pieces (actually ten), of which Op.65 is the fifth (actually the eighth). The five lines on the Liszt Concerto are even shorter. At least this is better than European-sourced Eloquence CDs but if Naxos, Regis, Australian Eloquence and Warner Apex can offer decent notes at this price, why cannot Virgin? Naxos even generously make their notes available online. Surely, too, having heard such fine advocacy of the Liszt Concerto, our novice will want to try Liszt’s other Piano Concerto, only to discover that nearly all the recordings couple the two Liszt Concertos, plus Totentanz or some solo piano music. 

Such reservations apart, the reader who has picked his or her way through the above will already have assumed that I have a high regard for the performances. I have not heard Andsnes’ later version of the Grieg but it must be very good indeed if it is to be preferred. Though Andsnes was still (just) a teenager when this earlier version was made, his is a fresh and insightful performance and youthful insight is sometimes hard to excel or even match later. The teenage Yehudi Menuhin gave a performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, under the composer’s own direction, which he never surpassed or even equalled in his later recordings. There are also good reasons for preferring Nigel Kennedy’s first version of that same Elgar Concerto (on its own on CFP 5 75139 2 or coupled with the Introduction and Allegro on EMI 3 45792 2) to his later remake with Rattle, quite apart from the price differential. In fact, the later version is due for reissue in September, 2007, on EMI 5 03417 2, which will largely rule out the price differential. 

When this Andsnes recording first appeared, the general consensus was that it offered fresh interpretations, though some felt that both concertos were a little slow and under-powered. Certainly the very opening of the Grieg begins in a grand manner, with no sense that either the soloist or the orchestra are holding back, but it soon becomes apparent that both Andsnes and Kitayenko lay stress on the lyrical rather than the barnstorming aspect of this work, though with plenty of power when it is called for. I, for one, found the overall effect very satisfying, though with the proviso that this might not be the only version I should wish to have. Only in the slow movement did I find the performance a little too dreamy and even here the hushed playing, very well captured by the engineers, was convincing in its own context. The Finale goes out in a blaze of glory.

The competition is fierce: excellent versions of this Concerto slip out of the catalogue almost unnoticed. Around the same time as the first appearance of this Andnes CD a fine version of the Grieg/Schumann coupling appeared on CFP at bargain price, Pascal Devoyon with the LPO under Jerzy Maksymiuk. Though it had a great deal going for it – would, indeed, still be very competitive with this Andsnes’ reissue, at much the same price – it seems to have been consigned to oblivion, despite being compared more than favourably with the Andsnes by the eminent critic who found the latter too languid. Paradoxically, to demonstrate how the judgement of tempo is a very subjective matter, all three movements in the Andsnes version are actually slightly faster overall than the Devoyon.

Amongst the great interpreters of the past, Rubinstein appears to be available only reissues of historical recordings or on a DVD collection (Chopin, Grieg and Saint-SaŽns on DG Unitel 0734195). The Curzon/Fjeldstad version by which I came to know the Grieg Concerto, on a 10-inch stereo Decca LP, is currently available only in one of two multi-CD boxes. Perhaps Australian Eloquence would do us the favour of reissuing it on a single CD: the coupling with Franck and Schumann, as on its most recent Decca appearance, would be ideal. They already have one very good Grieg/Schumann coupling with Arrau and von Dohnanyi on 456 566 2 and there is a recommendable Anda/Kubelik version of the Grieg concerto coupled with Karajan’s Peer Gynt suites on European Eloquence 469 624 2. 

The danger of having carried one version in one’s head, as it were, for 45 years, is that it comes to be regarded as the ideal to which all others must conform. In the case of the Grieg Concerto, however, there is little danger of this, since no two versions, even among the best I have heard, ever sound alike. Similar considerations apply to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: far from being ‘fixed’ on the first version which I heard, from MŁnchinger on Ace of Clubs, which would hardly pass muster today but seemed the bee’s knees then, I find it very difficult to recommend one version among the many fine but very different interpretations I have heard. 

If pressed, I should have to recommend the Kovacevich/Davis version of the Grieg and Schumann Concertos as the best available: see Rob Barnett’s Musicweb review; since that review in 2001 this CD has undergone yet another transmogrification, still available on 464 702 2 and on an earlier Philips Solo version, 446 199 2, now also on Philips Originals, 475 7773 - the number listed in the Penguin Guide Yearbook appears to be incorrect. This version of the Grieg Concerto is also available on a 2-CD Philips Duo with the Peer Gynt suites, under Leppard (438 380 2).

This was a glorious period for the young Stephen Bishop, as he was then known, in partnership with Colin Davis: I have recently praised their Mozart Concertos from that period and their Bartůk (Concertos 1-3 on Australian Eloquence 468 1882, also due for reissue rather more expensively on Philips Originals 475 8690) is equally fine. 

The performance of the Liszt also makes it slightly less of a warhorse than usual. Again, I find the stress on the lyrical aspects of this work refreshing and there is no lack of power where it is required. I certainly do not find the lack of overall structure that some have complained of. 

The Lyric Pieces are very well played – here, for once, in view of their title, Andsnes’ lyricism cannot be in doubt. The recording, both of the Concertos and these solo items, is very good, with the quiet moments especially effectively captured. 

Our hypothetical beginner who might purchase this CD is unlikely to have any cause for dissatisfaction: he or she would be getting a far better bargain than my 10-inch version of the Grieg. The eighteen shillings which I paid for that LP would convert to more like £18 at today’s prices, whereas this CD, at around a third of that price, offers almost three times the music, thus leaving money in reserve for a good version of the Schumann. I am currently awaiting a review copy of the Schumann, in a version not coupled for once with the Grieg. Watch this space for further news.

Brian Wilson


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