Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
String Quartet in G minor, Op.27 [arr Alf Årdal] [35.03]
String Quartet in F major, Op. posth. [arr Alf Årdal] [19.29]
Arne NORDHEIM (1931-2010)
Rendezvous (1986) [21.55]
Oslo Camerata/Stephen Barratt-Due
rec. Lommedalen Church, Oslo, 17-21 August 2009
NAXOS 8.572441 [76.45]
These is a long and honourable tradition of transcribing string quartets for performance by string orchestra which dates back to the nineteenth century. There are many listeners who find the sound of a solo quartet grating, and it is certainly true that the quartet medium mercilessly exposes the slightest errors in intonation while a string orchestra can smooth over any such technical imperfections. Naxos already have a very good recording of the Grieg quartets in original form in their catalogue, and have now turned their attention to these arrangements by Alf Årdel who himself contributes a note in the insert booklet explaining what he has done to the scores. He has done a very good job, only amplifying Grieg’s original textures by the addition of a double bass line where appropriate and adapting the writing for orchestral players where necessary.
The players of the Oslo Camerata do a very good job, too. Their admirably precise playing sparkles with electricity, and they bring a delightful warmth to the music. Grieg himself scored a number of his piano pieces for string orchestra, including the Holberg Suite, and the first movement of the completed quartet he published during his lifetime has the same sort of quick energy that is to be found in that arrangement. Just before the end of the movement (at around 11.24) the writing for string orchestra sounds like a similarly haunting passage in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro where in the original quartet version it sounds rather less sure of its bearings. The playing in the intermezzo is superb, and the greater breadth of a string orchestra brings a marvellous earthiness to the scherzo-like halling rhythms. The thick chordal writing in the finale benefits enormously from the additional weight that an orchestra can bring to the music.
Grieg’s incomplete second quartet originally opened with a slow introduction calling for triple-stopping by the violin. This cannot be played by any modern instrument at less than forte, and the lower notes cannot be sustained. Grieg’s friend Julius Röntgen edited out these parts when the score was prepared for publication after Grieg’s death. With a string orchestra Grieg’s original scoring can easily be restored – another positive advantage of these arrangements. The skirling opening to the second surviving movement is given a delightfully wistful flavour by the Oslo Camerata’s poised and delicate bowing.
Naxos’s recording of these quartets in their original version came coupled with a very interesting and otherwise totally unknown work by David Monrad Johansen. Here we are given another transcription for string orchestra, this time made by the composer himself, of a work originally written for string quartet by Arne Nordheim. He is described in the booklet as the “leading Norwegian composer of his generation” and on the back of the disc as the “leading Norwegian composer of the twentieth century” (not quite the same thing). Grieg himself survived into the twentieth century; but if we disregard his claim, there is surely another Norwegian composer of the twentieth century who has a much more serious entitlement to this accolade in the still disgracefully under-known Geirr Tveitt, whose music Naxos themselves have admirably done so much to promote.
Nordheim, we are told, after study abroad in the 1950s “was able to pioneer new techniques in Norway, a country that musically had remained generally conservative in taste.” Presumably this conservative taste was considered to embrace Grieg: for at the time his large-scale music, apart from the ubiquitous piano concerto, was totally unknown and his most dramatic music – the superlatively sinister Night scene from Peer Gynt, or the scenes from the unfinished opera Olaf Trygvason – was yet to be rediscovered by the musical world. In any event it seems an odd choice to complete a disc of Grieg’s music with a piece from a composer who would presumably have regarded himself as diametrically opposed to everything that Grieg symbolised. The booklet cites the main influences on Nordheim as Sibelius, Mahler and Bartók; but the principal point of similarity would appear to be more with Hindemith. There is nothing at all objectionable or unpleasant about this music, but nothing very memorable either; it falls into the category of so many worthy well-constructed academic pieces written during that era. Even the slow and long-drawn final Nachruf does not raise the emotional temperature despite some delicacy of idiom. The quartet, originally written in 1956, was re-scored for string orchestra in 1986; but by that time the idiom of the writing was long past its sell-by date. Nordheim appears to have done little or nothing to alter it during the process of revision. In short, the music is grey and colourless even in its livelier passages, unlike its “conservative” companions on this disc. Even the sincerely felt and technically assured playing of the string orchestra cannot bring it to life.
All that said, the two Grieg quartets work well in this format, and well repay investigation both by Grieg enthusiasts and those who have an allergy to the medium of the string quartet. The Lommedalen Church is spacious and nicely resonant, and the recorded sound is very rich and detailed.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Admirably precise playing that sparkles with electricity and brings a delightful warmth.