Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 (1880) [8:47]
Two Melodies for String Orchestra, Op. 53 (1890) [8:20]
From Holberg's Time: Suite in Olden Style, Op. 40 (1884) [20:06]
Two Lyric Pieces, Op. 68 (1897-9) [7:10]
Two Nordic Melodies for String Orchestra, Op. 63 (1895) [11:07]
Lyric Suite, Op. 54 (1905) [15:42]
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Concert Hall of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, May 2009
NAXOS 8.572403 [71:13]
The title "Music for String Orchestra" isn't strictly accurate. The ensemble for the Op. 68 pieces includes an oboe and a horn along with the strings, while the Lyric Suite, even in Grieg's own adaptation, requires the full orchestra. Still, this is a lovely collection.
The Holberg Suite, the major work on the program, comes off well, in a performance that plays to the Malmö ensemble's strengths. The opening Prelude benefits from a forthright attack and drive. The gentle treatment of the Sarabande doesn't sacrifice rhythmic backbone; the cello solo at 1:11 aches with yearning, while the following duet evokes a lovely nostalgia. Here, as in the buoyant Gavotte that follows, Engeset infuses the second subject with greater impulse. The dignified, steady tread of the Air builds into a tonally saturated climax; the closing Rigaudon is crisp and lively.
The "standard" Op. 54 Lyric Suite isn't quite that. The opening Shepherd Boy is played in the composer's own arrangement for harp and strings. The main theme, here assigned to violins, unexpectedly sounds more expressive and less clichéd than in the solo double-reeds of Anton Seidl's familiar orchestration. In the other three movements - where Grieg's redactions don't differ markedly from Seidl's versions - Engeset offers distinctive readings, with a bracing horn in the Gangar; graceful, easy attacks in the Notturno; and a March of the Dwarfs that's rousing but never driven. If you want more Lyric Pieces, the program includes the two of Op. 68. The oboe in Evening in the Mountains doesn't sound offstage as prescribed, and At the Cradle is too matter-of-fact in demeanour for a lullaby; still, the performances are lovely.
The other short pieces are nicely turned, as well. In The Wounded Heart, the first of the Two Elegiac Melodies, the bold attack on the tutti recap gradually settles into a peaceful final cadence. The introductory phrase of The Last Spring could be a bit more restrained, but the players soon settle into a more comfortable level, for a touching performance. The Two Nordic Melodies both open into full-throated tuttis, though the first, In Folk Style, has its wistful, delicate moments along the way. The "Peasant Dance" portion of the second movement doesn't sound very dance-like, but its energy is winning.
The Two Melodies, Op. 53, come off as less substantial than the rest of the program, not because they're overtly "pretty-pretty" pieces - which shouldn't ipso facto make them "unimportant," after all - but because they never quite make it to pretty-pretty. Engeset and his players do their best for them, particularly in the first piece, Norwegian, with its strong, folksy accents.
The string sections of the Malmö Symphony sound perhaps a desk or two shorter than full symphonic strength, so they don't command the tonal plush of, say, the London Symphony, or the big American orchestras. Their playing has plenty of concentrated power and intensity - the initial phrase of In Folk Style is played with full, surging tone - yet accents are warm and cushioned rather than aggressive. The cleanly etched textures, avoiding the mushiness or blunted edges of some string-orchestra performances, are pleasing; high violin passages are ethereal and transparent. The players' conscientiousness about tuning and blend, however, can lead to undue caution: here and there, a quiet or lyrical phrase is carefully or tentatively negotiated rather than calmly intoned.
The recorded sound comes up with splendid depth and a buzzy, focused bass. This will delight even those who might otherwise prefer Leppard's similarly scaled but more muscular Holberg Suite(Philips Duo).

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
This will delight and comes up with splendid depth.

See review by Brian Reinhart