Grieg's songs don't get much play on the recital platform, nor
do the few that he orchestrated turn up in concert with any
frequency. As conductor Engeset points out in his booklet note,
the Norwegian texts, readily understood by few, have hindered
audience appreciation - Solvejg's Song in one or another
mediocre German translation simply doesn't come off as well.
And the songs Naxos offers do get locked in a structure of sometimes
repetitive two-bar phrases, perhaps Grieg's major compositional
limitation. But the dramatic atmosphere is even stronger in
the songs than in the symphonic music, with the orchestral backings
providing scope for real expression. I suspect that, were the
songs better known, Grieg would overcome the parochial reputation
he has in some quarters.
It's the orchestral "accompaniments" -- rather more
than that, I'd say -- that come off best in these performances.
Under Engeset's direction, the Malmö Symphony plays handsomely
and sensitively. String lines are vibrant and expressively shaped;
woodwind soloists are by turns suave and piquant; and the brasses
make impressive sounds.
But these are songs, and I wanted the singing to be better.
Inger Dam-Jensen is a lyric soprano with a rich, warm midrange.
She sings feelingly, if sometimes heavily - some notes in that
midrange nag below dead center - and she's also more closely
miked than she needs to be. In Det første møde
- described by Engeset as a "nature-idyll" - Dam-Jensen's
upper range floats and occasionally soars; elsewhere, as in
Solvejg's Song, the top notes are strained or disconnected.
Den Bergtekne is the longest of Grieg's orchestral songs,
according to the conductor; it's certainly laid out on a symphonic
scale, with two horns injecting an ominous note into the sombre
string orchestra. It really wants a firmer, ringier voice than
Palle Knudsen's; his shallow, monochromatic baritone becomes
increasingly tremulous as it ascends above the staff. In fairness,
Knudsen sounds altogether more settled in Henrik Wergeland,
the last of the group billed as "Six Orchestral Songs,"
assembling songs from the composer's various opera, though
who assembled them, or on what rationale, is never discussed.
Albums showcasing the less familiar Grieg frequently tack the
two Peer Gynt suites onto the program, presumably to
lure prospective buyers. The suites appeared on the recent Bis
release (BIS-SACD-1591) featuring an excellent performance of
the Old Norwegian Romance with Variations, and here they
are again. One understands the commercial impulses behind these
decisions, but for serious collectors and listeners, the prospect
of endless duplication looms, much as it did in the early days
of CD, with Mahler's Wayfarer Songs.
The First Suite, in this instance, justifies its inclusion.
The precisely attacked opening chord of Morning Mood
is breathtaking -- especially against the CD's utterly silent
background -- bespeaking the conductor's unwillingness to take
anything for granted, though not all the chords rise to that
level; the woodwind trills in the closing pages are alert. Åse's
Death flows in a single broad arc, conveying sadness and
resignation rather than the tragic weight of bigger-boned performances
such as Barbirolli's (EMI). The lilt and grace of Anitra's
Dance is properly seductive; whether by chance or by design,
Engeset underlines the occasional three-bar pizzicato groupings
beneath the four-bar melodic phrases. In the Hall of the
Mountain King begins crisply, with the pungent tones of
bassoon and contrabassoon more strongly felt than usual; the
effective buildup eschews the splashy, frenetic energy favored
The Second Suite sounds musical but generic, lacking a similar
sense of detailed attention: the Arabian Dance, for example,
misses the distinction of Anitra's Dance. Peer Gynt's
Homecoming becomes quite exciting as the turbulence increases;
the brasses play their interjections with sharp rhythmic address,
and they register with impressive depth in Naxos's engineering.
Engeset uses the dynamics to shape the transitional woodwind
chorale with purpose. The orchestra-only version of Solvejg's
Song is pretty but ordinary - even the finest violin sections
don't always capture, or perhaps understand, the feeling of
"vocal" phrasing - but the refrains, which can sound
like a throwaway, have a dancey lilt, and the airy woodwind
chord that ends each refrain subtly opens the texture.
As indicated, the sound is excellent, and Engeset's note makes
a strong case for the greatness of the Peer Gynt music,
if you're one of the doubters.
Stephen Francis Vasta
see also review by Göran