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Edvard Hagerup GRIEG (1843–1907)
The Complete Orchestral Music
CD 1 [79:09]
I høst (In Autumn), concert overture for orchestra, Op. 11 (1866) [13:00]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868) [31:04]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
Symphony in C minor (1863–64) [34:00]
CD 2 [74:36]
Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op. 22 (1872) [34:31]
Incidental music to the play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
Landkjenning (Land Sighting), Op. 31 (1872/1881) [6:30]
for baritone, male choir and orchestra. Text: B. Bjørnson
Bergliot, Op. 42 (1871, orch. 1885) [18:37]
Melodrama for declamation and orchestra. Text: B. Bjørnson
Sørge marsj over Rikard Nordraak, EG 117 (1866) [7:49]
(Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak)
Arranged for orchestra by Johan Halvorsen (1907)
Den Bergtekne (The Mountain Thrall), Op. 32 (1877–78) [5:37]
for baritone and orchestra. Text: traditional
Håkan Hagegård (baritone) [4, 8, 9, 12]; Gørild Mauseth (narrator) [10]
Male voices from the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Seim Songkor and Kor Vest (Bergen Vocal Ensemble)/Håkon Matti Skrede [4, 9]
CD 3 [77:38]
Olav Trygvason, opera fragment (1873/1888) [34:10]
Op. 50. Text: B. Bjørnson
Foran Sydens Kloster (At the Cloister Gate) (1871) [10:15]
Op. 20. Text: B. Bjørnson
Six Songs with Orchestra (orch. 1894–95) [29:03]
I. Solveigs Sang (Solveig’s Song), Op. 23 No. 19. Text: Henrik Ibsen
II. Solveigs Vuggevise (Solveig’s Cradle Song), Op. 23 No. 26. Text: H. Ibsen
III. Fra Monte Pincio (From Monte Pincio), Op. 39 No. 1. Text: B. Bjørnson
IV. En Svane (A Swan), Op. 25 No. 2. Text: H. Ibsen
V. Våren (Last Spring), Op. 33 No. 2. Text: A.O. Vinje
VI. Henrik Wergeland, Op. 58 No. 3. Text: John Paulsen
Ved Rondane (At Rondane), Op. 33 No. 9 (1880). Text: A.O. Vinje [3:03]
arranged by Johan Halvorsen
Solveig Kringelborn (soprano) [1, 4]
Ingebjørg Kosmo (mezzo) [2, 4]
Trond Halstein Moe (baritone) [1, 2]
Marita Solberg (soprano) [5–11]
Bergen Philharmonic Choir and
Kor Vest (Bergen Vocal Ensemble)/Håkon Matti Skrede [1–3]
Voci nobili/Maria Gamborg Helbekkmo [4]
CD 4 [53:29]
Peer Gynt, Op. 23 (1874–75)
Play by Henrik Ibsen, in a concert version prepared by Svein Sturla Hungnes
Acts I-III
CD 5 [60:01]
Peer Gynt, Op. 23 (1874–75) [t.t.112:42]
Acts IV-V
Actors: Peer Gynt - Svein Sturla Hungnes; Solveig- Marita Solberg; Åse - Kari Simonsen; Ingrid / Woman in Green / Anitra - Andrea Bræin Hovig; Hegstad farmer / Mountain King / Captain - Bjørn Willberg Andersen; The Boyg / Monsieur Ballon / Stranger / Begriffenfeldt / Button Moulder - Ståle Bjørnhaug;
Singers: Peer Gynt - Håkan Hagegård (baritone); Solveig- Marita Solberg (soprano); Anitra / 3rd Herd-Girl - Ingebjørg Kosmo (mezzo); 1st Herd-Girl - Kari Postma (soprano); 2nd Herd-Girl - Hilde Haraldsen Sveen (soprano); Thief - Iikka Leppänen (bass-baritone); Receiver - Torbjørn Gulbrandsøy (baritone); Arve Moen Bergset (Hardanger fiddle);
Kor Vest (Bergen Vocal Ensemble)/Håkon Matti Skrede
CD 6 [70:50]
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1874–75/1888) [15:34]
Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, Op. 55 (1874–75/1892) [17:15]
Sørgemarsj over Rikard Nordraak, EG 117 (1866/1867/1899) [7:52]
(Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak) version for wind band
Gammelnorsk romanse med variasjoner, Op. 51 (1890/1900–03) [24:29]
(Old Norwegian Melody with Variations)
Klokkeklang (Bell Ringing), Op. 54 No. 6 (1891/1904) [3:59]
CD 7 [59:15]
Fra Holbergs tid (Holberg Suite), Op. 40 (1884/1885) [19:52]
To elegiske melodier (Two Elegiac Melodies), Op. 34 (1880) [8:58]
To melodier (Two Melodies), Op. 53 (1890) [9:09]
To nordiske melodier (Two Nordic Melodies), Op. 63 (1895) [12:00]
To lyriske stykker (Two Lyric Pieces), Op. 68 (1899/1900) [7:47]
Øyvind Bjorå (solo violin); Sebastian Dörfler (solo cello)
CD 8 [71:05]
Norwegian Dances, Op. 35 (1881) [18:18]
Orchestrated by Hans Sitt (1888)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 64 (1896/1898) [33:57]
Lyric Suite, Op. 54 (1889–91/1904) [17:52]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Ole Kristian Ruud
rec. Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway, 2002-2005
BIS BISCD1740/42 [8 CDs: 70:09 + 74:36 + 77:38 + 53:29 + 60:01 + 70:50 + 59:15 + 71:05 (8:25:15)]


Experience Classicsonline

Eight discs for the price of three is the promise given on the back of this bumper Bergen box from Bis, and staggeringly good value it is too. These recordings have of course been released before, and on SACD. Not having heard any of the SACD versions I have no comment to make on any advantages to be had from having this technical aspect, but would suggest that, with the cracking sound quality on offer throughout this set we’re well served by these stereo versions, and I can’t imagine any complaints from anyone. These recordings have already received numerous accolades and awards, and the entire series received the Grieg Award in 2007, the year of the hundredth anniversary of the death of the composer, as well as a very special commendation by the UK Grieg Society the same year. This coming to a Norwegian orchestra and conductor might not be surprising, but in repertoire which has been some of the more widely represented in the catalogues for years has to make this something of a milestone. All of the links in this review will take you to the other MusicWeb reviews of these discs as they appeared singly, providing further background and insights. The booklet notes for the box are good, but not nearly as detailed as those for the original releases – some small compensation to those who shelled out at the time.

Disc 1 opens with the concert overture I høst (In Autumn), orchestrated from a piece originally written for piano duet. This substantial fantasy has a dramatic, craggy opening, with plenty of that Nordic spirit which makes one believe in the power of landscape to influence art and the spirit of countless mythologies. This is a moving prelude to what has almost become a concert-hall cliché; the Piano Concerto in A minor. This has to be one of the pieces no self-respecting collection would be without, but with so many versions on offer it is hard to take one’s pick. My own much-played version has been that of Murray Perahia with the Bavarian RSO and Colin Davis, originally on CBS but now available on Sony. I have no real allegiance to this particular recording other than not having felt any particular need to seek much in the way of other performances. With Noriko Ogawa and Ole Kristian Ruud I, as have others before me, felt myself discovering the music anew. Ruud and the Bergen Phil have, as they already did with I høst, a way of bringing out the hard, granite grit in the centre of this almost over-familiar music, such that the familiar flowery romanticism almost becomes a secondary feature. The combination of that high-romantic idiom alongside Grieg’s native folk-feel material is fused into a heady brew in this recording. Ogawa’s cadenza in the first movement has a truly thunderous opening, and the storm clouds are still very much present as the orchestra comes out of retreat. With the Adagio the sense of drama continues, with any limpid or dewy sentimentality only given a much space as is indicated in the score, which in fact is not much when the piece is played properly. The dance-like impact of the final movement is full of controlled dynamism, superbly articulated by winds, brass and strings alike. The final cadenza and conclusion is a sonic marvel, as well as a performing triumph. Full of emotional charge and wonderful playing, this is a ‘Grieg Piano Concerto’ for keeps, and bodes very well indeed for the rest of this box.

The final work on disc 1 is the Symphony in C minor, which was famously the result of Niels W. Gade’s advice to Grieg to “go home and write a symphony” instead of prolonging his studies. Grieg himself withdrew the work, and it was only revived in 1981. Full of a similar youthful freshness to Nielsen’s first symphony, this work has plenty of vigour and charm, with sweeping themes and a generally uplifting feel. The Grieg fingerprints of descending bass lines, major/minor relationships and a potent sense of landscape and national character are all there within the conventional pattern of a romantic four movement symphony form, albeit with some lengthy transitions of lesser originality. This is certainly no lightweight filler, and is well deserving of its place in the repertoire. The Bergen Philharmonic does the piece proud, imparting a character and sense of involvement that I’d not yet heard in this music. Grieg’s native town was Bergen, and this might have something to do with the musicians’ sense of connection to the music, despite any weaknesses we might find in it as a whole. Whatever the reason, in my book, this is the recording which we should all have on our shelves.

My reference for Sigurd Jorsalfar has long been that with Neeme Järvi and the Götheborgs Symfoniker on DG, the one which acts as a filler to his ‘complete’ Peer Gynt, of which more later. Rich orchestral sound aside, this was always a piece I felt had just a bit too much nationalist fervour in Järvi’s recording, and as a result it would more often as not be turned off whenever Peer Gynt had finished. Ole Kristian Ruud’s percussion somehow sounds less martial than Järvi’s, and the recurring chorale-like theme more like a lyrical hymn or anthem than a statement of national identity being rammed down one’s throat. This is something of an extreme comparison I admit, but the Bis recording is the one to which I know I can return. Baritone Håken Hakegård is heroic as soloist, and the men of the Bergen Philharmonic Choir are throatily lusty, like a real crowd of soldiers. By contrast, Kjell Magnus Sandve is rather lightweight for Järvi, the lower range of the music going just too far down for his tenor voice.

The rest of disc 2 is taken up with works which were less familiar to me. Landkjenning or ‘Land Sighting’. This work for baritone, male choir and orchestra was part of a projected but never to be completed operatic collaboration between Grieg and the Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Ancient hero King Olav Tryggvason is taken strongly by Håken Hakegård, and there is plenty of Nordic testosterone flying around. The melodrama Bergliot depicts the destiny of a woman, powerfully, sometimes frighteningly played by Gørild Mauseth. Those Norwegian women certainly know how to shout, and the language seems to lend itself well to passionate outbursts. We can be grateful that all texts are provided in translation at the back of the booklet, but to be honest I’ve rarely found the need: such humanist sentiments speak in some direct way to the soul, and are surely hard to misinterpret. Besides, I greatly enjoy the strength and rhythmic potency in the Norwegian language without picking through reams of translated text to find out the exact meanings of each sentence. The Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak was written for a composer friend of Grieg, and appears here in the version for symphony orchestra by Johan Halvorsen which was played at Grieg’s own funeral. If you are looking for demonstration sound quality, the bass drum from about 1:10 and onwards will give your woofers a workout, and the winds and brass are given chilling definition as well. The Mountain Thrall was entirely new to me, but has some gorgeous melodic shapes. The text is a traditional Norwegian poem about someone being led astray in the woods by a maiden troll, but is more of an allegory; telling mankind to stop messing around and get itself sorted out in the same way as the herring and the squirrels, none of whom have problems finding a mate.

The grim-sounding Bjørnson saga of King Olav Tryggvason has its remaining fragments on disc 3, with beautiful, clean singing by soloists and choir. This dark drama is rich in nationalistic feeling, but still has much good music to offer, and shows the way for some of the characteristics found in Peer Gynt. Another piece intended for use with Bjørnson’s work is At the Cloister Gate, intended as an interlude for another play around the subject of ancient history, that of the Swedish hero Arnjot Gelline who fell at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. It is much to Grieg’s credit that all of these bits and pieces still make for excellent concert music, but with the opening Solveig’s Song of the collection Six Songs with Orchestra it is clear that the composer had no problems about removing ‘the best bits’ from other works and using them as set pieces. This Solveig’s Song is a tad slower than I’ve been used to hearing it, but this takes nothing away from the beauty of Marita Solberg’s singing. With the diversity of sources this is somewhat less than a cycle of songs, but each has its own atmosphere and beauty, greatly enhanced by the sensitivity of the orchestral playing. The gorgeous Last Spring is one you could play on a loop. As has been noted elsewhere, the performances of this and the other songs avoid slushy sentimentality; jerking the tears with relatively straight but finely wrought performances. The addition of At Rondane is thanks to another arrangement by Johan Halvorsen, providing a fine conclusion to this most attractive of vocal programmes.

Discs 4 and 5 are dedicated to Peer Gynt. My associations with this piece are that of playing Neeme Järvi and the Götheborgs Symfoniker’s DG version at high volume first thing on Sunday mornings while on holiday in a small cottage in Friesland, so my ‘complete Peer Gynt’ pre-programming leads me to make a direct comparison. As so often with two such high quality recordings this is a case of swings and roundabouts. Both have swathes of Norwegian text which will go over the heads of us poor non-speakers and the Bis recording is more complete in this regard, but with Järvi the sense of high drama is potent throughout, and his 1987 DG recording has Barbara Bonney in the all-important role of Solveig. Ole Kristian Ruud is punchier and crisper in his approach to the more dramatic moments in the orchestral music, and with a marginally less plush though certainly no less dynamic sound I feel more of a sense of contrast in the colours he has from the instrumentalists. The all important hardanger fiddle is more distant, at times too distant to my mind with Bis, and only semi-audible in the opening of the Halling scene in the first act. Bis’s production has however far more of a theatre atmosphere, with Ibsen’s texts appearing more often over the music, so the sense of perspective does have logic. Järvi’s is more of a concert-hall performance. With Ruud you can close your eyes and let your imagination take you through the play – Grieg’s music functioning more as it would do in the theatre or opera house. Carrying on a series of A/B comparisons between these two versions I find myself more drawn to the Bis recording on just about every level. Much as I hold an affection for the older DG recording, I think it safe to say this Bis version would be my desert island performance – with only the increased level of Norwegian text as a possible caveat for those who prefer to have more of the uninterrupted music, but then, that’s surely what the suites are for.

Grieg published his Peer Gynt Suite a few years after completing the original score. The suite’s popularity lead to it being renamed Peer Gynt Suite No.1 when the second suite was published in 1892. The music from these suites became so popular that they became public property, appearing in so many arrangements and versions that the composer hardly recognised his own work when encountering it at a concert in Monte Carlo in 1893. A side effect of this was however to open doors to performances of Ibsen’s play, which has received numerous performances where it otherwise might have been neglected. As a member of numerous youth orchestras I too remember several performances at which Grieg might have had a hard time recognising his own work, but the playing from the Bergen Philharmonic is second to none. The all-important string sound is a lush, verdant field, from which Grieg’s elegiac melodies grow with ineffable poetic beauty. In the Hall of the Mountain King receives a suitably creepy build-up, and the brass snarls early on are tremendously evocative.

Referring back to disc 2, and we have here the wind band version of the Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak, which was Grieg’s own arrangement from the piano original. The more acidic sound of the wind orchestra if anything give this piece an even more chillingly tragic feel than the opulence of the orchestral version, and I am very glad it has been included in this set. Grieg’s only substantial work for two pianos, the Old Norwegian Melody with Variations is another work which was less familiar to me. A quick look at other versions show it has made fewer inroads into commercial success, and listening to the piece one can hear why. The music is very good, and characteristically ‘Grieg’, but lacks the immediate appeal of his songlike themes or programmatic imagery. In fact, all of these features are there, but you have to search harder to find them – an indication of some changes in direction in the now older Grieg. The work’s origins meant that it wasn’t an instant hit, with few homes boasting two pianos. Grieg spent five years working on the orchestral arrangement, and was evidently convinced of its strengths and potential. The overall impression is one of a suite of connected character pieces rather than an academic set of variations on a theme, and while it might take you a while, I can imagine many listeners finding in this a new work to extend an appreciation of Grieg’s character as a composer. Klokkeklang or ‘Bell Ringing’ is another such piece. From the Lyric Pieces Op.54, it was originally intended as the opening movement, but Grieg was concerned that audiences might be put off by its radical nature. As a result, it is often heard on its own, and its fine orchestral colour and sonorities may indeed give you a surprise – not as a ‘difficult’ piece, but certainly one which presents Grieg as a composer capable of bringing off some quite modern sounding, impressionistic effects. 

Disc 7 opens with the Holberg Suite. This was another piano work arrangement from an original ‘old French style’ piano suite, but the string orchestra soon became a staple of the repertoire and it is easy to hear why this should be so. The quality in the Bergen strings has already been noted, and as a homogeneous ensemble they sound as convincing as the winds do in the Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak. The sheer effulgent joy in the soloists in the final Rigaudon is tremendous. The Two Elegiac Melodies come from two of Grieg’s Op.33 Vinje songs, and these were extended with another song from the same set in the Two Melodies, along with one from his Op.21. The other pieces, Two Nordic Melodies and Two Lyric Pieces were originally written for piano. There is a general air of melancholy in the bulk of this programme which might make it less suitable for cheering one up on a rainy afternoon, but there is no denying the beauty of the playing or the music. Less is more, and the elegant, elusive simplicity of some of Grieg’s best tunes is a lasting resource.

The final disc, number 8, brings us to the highly popular Norwegian Dances. These were orchestrated from the original piano duets by Grieg’s friend Hans Sitt, who gave them plenty of extra punch and pizzazz, with percussion and brass extras helping out with colour and impact. Another piano duet, the Symphonic Dances, was arranged by Grieg himself with equal verve, and the Bergen Philharmonic plays out of their collective skins in repertoire which they must have performed hundreds of times. The Lyric Suite is from Grieg’s highly successful fifth volume of lyric pieces, Op.54. He made his own orchestration, improving on a version by Anton Seidl from the USA which he felt lacked the lightness of touch suitable to the music. The contrasts which emerge have a surprising potency and passion, particularly in the wonderful Andante espressivo of the unexpectedly sophisticated ‘Shepherd Boy’. The evergreen March of the Dwarfs, with its fleeting winds and pizzicati is a suitably rousing finale to finish off this magnificent set.

As far as Grieg boxes go, this has to be top recommendation both for price, and sheer excellence of the performances and recordings. Neeme Järvi’s Gothenberg set of six discs from DG is in fact less than complete, missing out the Peer Gynt suites 1 & 2 and quite a few other choice moments you will find in this bargain Bis set, such as the wind band version of the Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak. Presentation is good as ever, with adequate booklet notes written especially for this set, including song texts and translations into English. I am also delighted to see that the paper envelopes for the discs in this chunky ‘slimline’ box no longer have those tedious glued fold-overs. Never mind ‘Bargain of the Month’, this has to be one of the bargains of the year, so my advice is to snap up a copy post haste. 

Dominy Clements 



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