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String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 27 (1878) [32:04]
Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 (1880) [7:56]
Erotikk, Op. 43 No. 5 (1886) [3:24]
Fea Holbergs Tid (Holberg Suite), Op. 40 (1884/1885) [18:56]
Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Tognetti
rec. October 2010, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, Sydney, Australia
Impressed by Richard Tognetti’s Mozart Violin Concertos (see review) and being a great enthusiast for good string orchestra playing, this substantial Grieg programme from BIS had my name written on it from the start.
I don’t know too many recordings of Grieg’s String Quartet No. 1 Op. 27 in orchestral arrangements, though have been aware of one on the Intim Musik label IMCD076 with the Musica Vitae ensemble. This is a nice enough performance, though by comparison the first and second movements are rather heavier, if just short of stodgy. Tognetti’s touch is a good deal lighter in the first movement, with sharper contrasts and more acutely observed dynamics and articulation. If you feel unlikely to be convinced that a string orchestra can add much to a piece for string quartet have a listen to the last few minutes of the first movement, from about 9:15. The addition of the extra octave of bass adds a gravitas and extra emotional twist which makes these passages linger in the mind. Tognetti brings out the lyrical charm of the second movement’s opening through a kind of urbane simplicity, reminding us of a world of fashionable salon music which is now rarely heard. The extra string weight adds drama to the swifter music later on, with playing very much in the spirit of chamber music style and some witty concerto-grosso exchanges between a solo group and the main string body, and effect which the SACD dimension really brings to life. The folksy rhythms of the Intermezzo really take flight in this recording, and again there are some lovely solo moments. There are some stunning dissonance/resolution moments in the opening of the Finale, subsequently taken over by a dancing and bitter-sweet unification of “Mediterranean gaiety… capering along the edge of a glacier of Nordic melancholy”, as Malcolm MacDonald puts it in his booklet notes. Just as I was about to send in this review the Oslo Camerata’s latest Naxos programme popped up (see review). This is a comparable sized string ensemble to Tognetti’s, but recorded with a more general sound and less up-front impact. This is a very nice recording of the Op. 27 String Quartet, but doesn’t beat the BIS disc for accuracy of performance, variety of colour and dramatic contrast.
The Two Elegiac Melodies are themselves song transcriptions, but best known as string orchestra pieces. It is BIS’s own recording with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on BIS-SACD-1491 which provides one of this piece’s stiffest competitors (see review). The massed strings of the Bergen Phil of course have a different character to Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra so the challenge is an uneven one, but even with Ole Kristian Ruud’s eloquence I don’t find Tognetti’s forces lacking in any way, and in fact the close-knit family feel of the smaller ensemble packs an even more personally tender and emotionally revealing punch. Tognetti gives himself a chance to play soloist in his arrangement of one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. Called Erotikk, this is by far the most sentimental sounding track on the programme, and entirely transformed from the piano original through vibrato and sustain in notes normally. It’s a soft target for the arranger’s pen and a clear crowd pleaser and I’ll leave it at that, other than to say that there would have been room on the disc for a few more.
The Holberg Suite was deliberately written by Grieg in the manner of a Baroque dance suite and is a tremendously effective string orchestra piece. Once again, Tognetti’s nimble players prove more flexible and articulate than the previously mentioned Bergen PO, who do a fine job, but are always going to sound that much heavier. Tognetti undercuts their tempi consistently, but not by a great deal. He is unhurried but dynamic as usual, developing sonorities and phrasing from a sometimes vanishingly light touch and an in-built feel for layering and transparency of texture. The beautiful Sarabande is a masterclass in dynamics and colouration, and the sighing ‘affect’ of Baroque rhetoric is very much present. This is a very fine performance indeed, and one which satisfies as much and more than most symphonic-scale recordings. Comparison with another chamber orchestra version, that of the Oslo Camerata on Naxos 8.557890, shows where the subtlest of gradations in performance make all the difference. These Oslo players are terrific, and offer plenty of extra miniatures which Tognetti might easily have picked up on for his programme. The BIS recording offers a state of the art transparency and sense of string tone and colour which the Naxos disc can’t quite match, and Tognetti manages to play with Grieg’s harmonic subtleties in ways which have a greater impact on the emotions. Without labouring the point musically, he picks up on moments which others tend to throw away, and the result is a cumulative build-up rather than a series of transitions and climaxes.
This is another triumph for Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, and a recording to covet and bring out at special occasions. Many of you will already know and love the Holberg Suite from other recordings, but please allow yourself to sample this version for the way it explores behind the notes, employing techniques from early music research to heighten and amplify Grieg’s inspired transformation of Baroque style to a quasi-quasi idiom – not quite Romantic, but certainly filled with poetry and deeply felt expression to go along with the fun dances, which are great fun indeed.
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