Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Chasing the Butterfly
Full track listing at end of review
Sigurd Slåttebrekk (piano, Grieg's own 1892 Steinway at Troldhaugen)
Edvard Grieg (piano) (the 1903 acoustic recordings)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
rec. October-November 2007 and 10-14 March 2009, Troldhaugen, Bergen, and April 1903, Paris (CD 1); 12-13 August 2004, Olso Konserthus (CD 2)
SIMAX PSC1299 [79:10 + 29:05]
‘Chasing the Butterfly’ might sound like a euphemism for something exotic and druggy, but in this case the Sommerfugl represents wispy and elusive remnants of Grieg’s performances of his own music. These were captured in Paris 1903, and the old acoustic recordings preserved on noisy 78 rpm discs are given as the second half of the first CD of this set. After a burst of the healthy modern recording made on Grieg’s fine old piano at his home of Troldhaugen in Bergen I almost immediately found myself wanting to hear the originals to have some point of reference. The amount of surface noise makes things difficult at first, but you fairly soon zoom in onto the composer’s playing, which, through Ignaz Moscheles at the Leipzig Conservatory, can be said to provide a link back to a 19th century style of performing. This is not so very strange or unrecognisable, but does show a certain licence and freedom which some would find hard to take from musicians today. One track towards the end of the disc has Grieg and Slåttebrekk ‘conversing’ as the track cuts between the old and the new in The Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. This is a slightly disconcerting effect and perhaps not the ideal way to bring the old and the new together, but does make for a very direct way of comparing and shows how close the two players are. There is always a certain amount of argument as to how much of a composer’s freedom in performance is the flexibility felt while dealing with their own music at any one moment, or that this indeed represents the way an audience would have expected to hear the music. Either way, hearing Grieg’s own playing is something rather magical. I remember hearing a piano roll of Grieg’s own playing at the Amsterdam pianola museum, and almost being able to sense his aura at the keyboard. These recordings give a comparable feeling of looking down a dim and stained lens back through time into a different era - another country.
Coming back to the modern recordings is quite a shock, the noise suddenly removed, state of the art stereo sound bringing the music right back to today. This effect is ameliorated by the use of an historic instrument, Grieg’s own, and in the intimate surroundings and acoustic he would have known as well as he knew his own socks. Sigurd Slåttebrekk’s recreations of Grieg’s own recordings are very convincing. They are accurate imitations, as far as one can tell from comparisons with the sometimes dimly perceivable old recordings, but in fact they go further than that as musical experiences. Assuming one knows the music; each piece has familiarity, but is at the same time filled with differences to the ways musician often play them today. The music is frequently taken at high speed, and endowed with a kind of easy swagger which is more personal than the ‘precious jewel with a bit of folk influence’ that we seem to find these days. I’m sure the circumstances of recording in 1903 weren’t perhaps the ideal in which to give the best imaginable performances. Given the time limits of each side of a record there may have been tempo considerations, and indeed, some of the recordings preserve only partially complete versions of movements.
Based on the evidence to hand, Sigurd Slåttebrekk has taken his recordings further than the nine tracks of Grieg’s own playing, and the complete Piano Sonata in E minor Op.7 and Ballade in G minor Op.24 expand on the research done into Grieg’s recordings to give us a realistically authentic style in works too long to ever have been recorded in their entirety over 100 years ago. With 1903 recordings extant, the Alla menuetto is a reference point, as is the Finale, given in truncated form by Grieg and played complete by Slåttebrekk. With the other two movements given a similar amount of verve and emotional investment this is a superb performance to have, as is the substantial Ballade Op.24. This is the kind of piece which ‘has it all’ in terms of minor key depths and variations – a summation of the composer’s creative values. Through Grieg’s piano it breathes a life of its own, filled with warmth and humanity as well as a soul-searching poignancy.
CD 2 is a nice bonus, a reissue of the acclaimed recording of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 12, previously issued on Simax PSC1260 in SACD form (see review). This is added as it was the starting point which ended up with the project represented by the first disc of this set. I am very happy to add my voice of appreciation for this performance, which is bright and entirely lacking in stodge. Yes, there are numerous excellent recordings of this famous piece around, but this one goes as far as any I could name in removing it from any form of jaded stereotype and making it sound freshly minted and full of rich discovery. The performance balances Grieg’s sense of fun against the moments of mystery in the first movement. It provides all the emotional warmth and expressive longing one could ask for in the central Andante, and the wildness of spirit in the final Allegro moderato is powerfully physical and genuinely inspired.
This two CD set is presented in a nice foldout pack, and has a substantial booklet with notes from the pianist and his artistic soul-mate in this project, creative director and recording producer Tony Harrison. There are plenty of photos as well, including of the interior of Grieg’s room, which shows exactly why the acoustic is so close and intimate. This is a unique collection, and one which can shine new light and different perspectives on favourite Grieg recordings such as those by Gilels on Deutsche Grammophon. The 1903 recordings have already been released on Simax PSC1809, but put in this new context they take on a new and even more valuable significance.
Grieg from a different perspective – utterly fascinating.
Full track listing:
Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen / Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op. 65, No. 6 [2:02]
From: Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 7
Alla menuetto [2:39]
Til Våren / To Spring, Op. 43, No. 6 [1:54]
Gangar, Op. 54, No. 2 [1:53]
Sommerfugl / Butterfly, Op. 43 No. 1 [1:55]
Humoreske, Op. 6, No. 2 [1:38]
Brudefølget drar forbi / Bridal Procession Passes, Op. 19, No. 2 [2:58]
Etterklang / Remembrances, Op. 71, No. 7 [1:41]
Piano Sonata in E minor Op. 7 [16:43]
Ballade in G Minor, Op. 24 [19:06]
Sigurd Slåttebrekk (piano)
Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen / Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op. 65, No. 6 [2:00]
From: Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 7
Alla menuetto [2:37]
Til Våren / To Spring, Op. 43, No. 6 [1:50]
Gangar, Op. 54, No. 2 [1:54]
Sommerfugl / Butterfly, Op. 43 No. 1 [1:47]
Humoreske, Op. 6, No. 2 [1:39]
Brudefølget drar forbi / Bridal Procession Passes, Op. 19, No. 2 [2:54]
Etterklang / Remembrances, Op. 71, No. 7 [2:31]
Edvard Grieg (piano)
Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen / Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op. 65, No. 6
Til Våren / To Spring, Op. 43, No. 6 (1930s re-issue of 1903 recording) [1:54]
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 [29:05]