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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Edvard GRIEG (1843 - 1907)
Peer Gynt, Op. 23 (1876)
CD1: Act I [12:48]; Act II [23:55]; Act III [11:44]; Act IV [27:32]

CD2: Act V [23:56]
Before a Southern Convent (Foran Sydens Kloster), Op. 20 (1871) [9:26]
Bergliot, Op. 42 [1885) [18:45]
Peer Gynt: Hans Jakob Sand (spoken role) - Peer Gynt; Anne Marit Jacobsen (spoken role) - Aase, his mother; Isa Katharina Gericke (soprano) - Solveig; Gjermund Larsen (Hardanger fiddle) - Fiddler; Unni Løvlid (soprano) - Dairymaid; Witch; Kirsten Bråten Berg (vocals) - Dairymaid; Witch; Lena Willemark (vocals) - Dairymaid; Erik Hivju (spoken roles) - The Mountain King; Senior Troll; The Bøyg; Button-moulder; Itziar Martinez Galdos (soprano) - Anitra; Knut Stiklestad (spoken role) - Thief; Yngve A. Søberg (bass-baritone) - Fence; sings 'Peer Gynt's Serenade';
Before a Southern Convent: Isa Katharina Gericke (soprano); Marianne E. Andersen (contralto)
Bergliot: Frøydis Armand (spoken role)
Malmö Chamber Choir; Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Concert Hall of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, 29 September-2 October 2007 (Peer Gynt), 11 January 2008 (Before a Southern Convent), 23 August 2006 (Bergliot)
The Norwegian sung texts and English translations can be accessed online.
NAXOS 8.570871-72 [75:58 + 52:06]
Experience Classicsonline

It was Henrik Ibsen himself who contacted Edvard Grieg in 1874 and asked him to write incidental music for Peer Gynt. The author had very clear views about the concept. Grieg set about his work but had to struggle a lot with what he called 'a terrifyingly intractable subject'. He also feared that the artistic quality might suffer in something 'made to order'. Today everybody even marginally interested in classical music is familiar with Grieg's Peer Gynt, at least in the shape of the immensely popular two orchestral suites. To realise the real greatness of his achievement, its stunning originality and its modernism one needs to hear the complete score. This should, preferably, as here, include chunks of the spoken dialogue, which to a considerable extent is interwoven with the music.
It should be mentioned that others have also written music for Peer Gynt. The Swedish composer August Söderman, almost simultaneously with Grieg, in 1948 Harald Saeverud and in 1969 Arne Nordheim wrote electronic incidental music for performances in Bergen. There have also been some operas on this theme, best known is probably Werner Egk's work, with libretto by the composer, premiered in Berlin 1938. There is also incidental music written by Alfred Schnittke in 1986.
This is not the first 'complete' recording of the Peer Gynt music. Per Dreier recorded it with the LSO in 1979 (Unicorn - also later in suite form), Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra set it down less than a decade later (DG) and in connection with the Grieg celebrations in 2007 there arrived another two sets: Ole Kristian Ruud with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS) and Paavo Järvi with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (Virgin). I have heard neither of the two last-mentioned and have vague memories of hearing part of the Dreier on the radio. I bought a well-filled highlights disc of Järvi pêre, which for twenty years has adorned my collection.
The present issue is the fifth instalment in Bjarte Engeset's Grieg Edition and as on the two most recent issues (Symphony) he conducts the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, which is a splendid body with a number of very successful recordings to their credit. Sixten Ehrling's set with the Berwald symphonies received a Gramophone Award. There is fine rapport between the orchestra and Bjarte Engeset and Scandinavian orchestras have Grieg's music more or less in their blood. They also recorded the Peer Gynt suites coupled with the six orchestral songs (review) only a year before this complete undertaking.
I wrote in my review of that previous disc that it felt 'undisputedly right' and this feeling also prevails here. Tempos are natural, which implies that they don't draw the listener's attention to the readings as some 'clever' interpretations can do. In some of the numbers that also constitute the two suites there are small differences but only variations of the kind one experiences every time one listens to the same interpreter on, say, two consecutive evenings in the same music. What definitely must draw the attention of a listener unfamiliar with the complete music is the inventive scoring and bold harmonies. This is especially noticeable when the chorus is involved and for those who only know In the Hall of the Mountain King from the orchestral suite this wild and barbaric version with screaming trolls will come as a shock (CD1 tr. 10). Peer Gynt chased by the Trolls (CD1 tr. 12) is a real thriller and his encounter with the three dairymaids (CD1 tr. 7) is also a far cry from the 'sugary' Grieg. There were some detractors in the twentieth century who thought his music too idyllic for Ibsen's 'bitter, timeless work'. Probably they were only familiar with the orchestral suites. Here Bjarte Engeset has chosen singers primarily active in folk music and there is a raw primitivism about their wholehearted and uninhibited performance.
There is also a fair share of exotic music, partly known from the suites, but the Arabian dance (CD1 tr. 18) incorporates women's voices, which makes it even more Arabic, and, deeply rooted in the Norwegian mountains as the Mountain King's daughter must be, her dance (CD1 tr. 11) reveals that she has probably spent a holiday south of the Mediterranean. It is probably no coincidence that when we first meet her as the Woman in Green (CD1 tr. 8) she is accompanied by phrases from Morning Mood, later played as orchestral introduction to Act IV (CD 1 tr. 16), which is set in North Africa. The most special music in the score is arguably the long eerie, dark and foreboding Night Scene in Act V (CD2 tr. 5). This is music that heralds impressionism and even more advanced developments in 20th century music.
There are generous helpings of spoken dialogue included to heighten the impression of the drama. We hear a lot from Peer himself, superbly acted by Hans Jakob Sand, but there are also excellent contributions from several others, none more so than Anne Marit Jacobsen's touching Aase. During Aase's Death (CD1 tr. 15) the eyes brim with tears. Peer Gynt's sole vocal contribution, his Serenade in Act IV, is well sung by Yngve A. Søberg and Isa Katharina Gericke (Solveig). Basque-born Itziar M. Galdos (Anitra) is splendid.
The Norwegian texts and English translations that are available on internet are very useful - I would even say necessary - to follow the proceedings. Scandinavians have an advantage, being able to follow the original more or less effortlessly. A minor drawback is the fact that the version printed here is based on a concert performance of Peer Gynt and includes much more spoken text than is included on the recording. The advantage is that one get an even fuller picture of the play - Ibsen entitled it 'dramatic poem'. Readers who want to print the text should know that it totals 40 pages including the words for the two fillers.
Foran Sydens Kloster (Before a Southern Convent) was on a BIS disc that I reviewed a couple of years ago. The title was then translated 'At the Cloister Gate'. This scene for two female voices and women's chorus was intended to form part of a longer work, based on Björnson's Arnljot Gelline but it was never finished. The action in Arnljot Gelline takes place in the early eleventh century. In the BIS review I commented on 'its likeness to Mediaeval ballads with its question-answer structure'. Bjarte Engeset instead sees parallels with Tamino's meeting with the Speaker in The Magic Flute. Whichever parallel one prefers it is fine lyrical music and I particularly like the 'Heavenly choir of nuns at the end'.
This music was written in 1871, just before Grieg composed the Peer Gynt score. At the same time he started working on Bergliot, also a Björnson text, but it wasn't completed until 1885. It is based on an Icelandic Saga, found in Snorre Sturlason's Heimskringla. This emotionally charged melodrama is about a Viking woman, whose husband and son are murdered by Harald Hardråde. Frøydis Armand invests her monologue with such tangible feelings: the joy and pride that is turned into sorrow and wrath - and finally to resignation. The music follows the changes of the text and again shows that Grieg was no plain idyllist. There is pathos here as well as nobility. I suspect that it is an advantage to understand the original language. I don't understand why Armand lacks a biography in the booklet when everybody else has one. After all this is the most important solo contribution on this disc, next to Hans Jakob Sand's Peer Gynt.
While neither of the two Björnson settings will ever be standard works it is a treat indeed to have them in such committed readings and they add further to the value of this highly recommendable set. The complete Peer Gynt is a work that should be heard by every music lover. I am sure that many listeners will have an even higher opinion of Grieg as a composer after hearing it. This set is another feather in Bjarte Engeset's cap. His Grieg series goes from strength to strength.
Göran Forsling


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