Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Two Elegiac Melodies, Op 34 [8:48]
Two Melodies for String Orchestra, Op 53 [8:20]
From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style, Op 40 [20:03]
Two Lyric Pieces, Op 68 [7:09]
Two Nordic Melodies, Op 63 [11:07]
Lyric Suite, Op 54 [15:35]
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. 24-25 August, 2006 (Lyric Suite), 25-29 May, 2009 (string music), Malmö Symphony Orchestra Concert Hall, Malmö, Sweden
NAXOS 8.572403 [71:02]

Edvard Grieg’s music for string orchestra is nearly impossible to dislike and very hard to play badly. The great folk-style melodies, most famously “Last Spring,” still tug the heart-strings of radio audiences and connoisseurs alike; the stamping peasant dance of the Nordic Melodies still puts a spring in the step; the famous Holberg Suite is still a delight. Recent years have been extremely good to this music: recordings by the Bergen Philharmonic and Ole Kristian Ruud (BIS), the Oslo Camerata and Stephan Barratt-Due (Naxos), and Eivind Aadland with the WDR Symphony (Audite), plus this new entrant in Bjarte Engeset’s series of the complete orchestral Grieg.

Engeset’s philosophy, which he sets down in his own helpful booklet essay - his writing has been valuable throughout the series - is to perform these string works with full sixty-strong orchestral forces, not a chamber ensemble. Grieg himself, it seems, extolled a “the more the better” philosophy, even naming 60 as an appropriate number of players. So Engeset has the Malmö Symphony strings at their full, rich best, creating a deep sound which enjoys great clarity too because of an ideal sonic balance and a distribution of the players which separates the violin sections and puts the basses in the back center. Engeset does, though, avoid weepiness where possible, so this “Last Spring” clocks in an entire minute faster than Ruud’s on BIS. Those who like this music more heart-on-sleeve, as I do, should take note. To find a similarly fast account, go back to Koussevitsky’s, on Naxos Historical coupled to Sibelius. There’s also the slightest element of reserve in the lament near the end of the Holberg Suite—but only the slightest.

The more trifling tunes are really charmingly done here, especially the Two Nordic Melodies, which are actually three (!) and utterly wonderful. As a bonus we get the Lyric Suite, arrangements of four of the Lyric Pieces for piano, with a rhythmically addictive Gangar and a totally delightful March of the Dwarves. As through the whole program, the Malmö Symphony combines a warm, full palette of colors with rhythmic precision.

We’re really prodigiously lucky to have, complete or nearly complete, two outstanding traversals of the Grieg orchestral works. Ruud’s on BIS and Engeset’s on Naxos have both benefited from such happy contributions from players, conductors, and engineers that the new Aadland cycle on audite is in danger of being superfluous. I find this music lovable enough to collect both Ruud and Engeset; Ruud’s disc of the string music was extremely fine, but this one is too. Their Holbergs come within a single second of each other; maybe the biggest difference is that Engeset is livelier in the Lyric Suite’s faster bits. But never mind: if you’re collecting this series, or this music, Engeset’s latest CD hits the spot.

Brian Reinhart

This hits the spot. You can never have too much Grieg string music, can you?