Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
String Quartets arranged for String Orchestra
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 (1878) (arr. Alf Årdal) [35:03]
String Quartet No.2 in F major (1891) (arr. Alf Årdal) [19:29]
Arne NORDHEIM (1931-2010)
Rendezvous (1986) [21:55]
Oslo Camerata/Stephan Barratt-Due
rec. 17-21 August 2009, Lommedalen Church, Oslo, Norway. DDD
NAXOS 8.572441 [76:45]
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 the Olden Style (1884) [20:06]
Two Lyric Pieces, Op.68 (1897-99) [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. 25-27 May 2009 (tracks 1-14); 24-25 August 2006 (tracks 15-18), Concert Hall of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Sweden. DDD
NAXOS 8.572403 [72:13]
These are two Scandinavian issues from Naxos, both mostly recorded in 2009 under Norwegian conductors and devoted to arrangements of Grieg’s music for string orchestra. Many of his compositions originally written for piano or chamber instruments ended up arranged for the string section of a symphony orchestra. Some were expressly written for that grouping. Grieg himself encouraged what we might call the ‘Big Band Sound’ and often urged a “bigger the better” approach, naming sixty strings as ideal. So there shouldn’t be too much of a purist issue regarding whether music such as the quartets or piano items “ought” to be arranged in this manner.
The first disc uses arrangements made by Norwegian conductor Alf Årdal. According to violinist and conductor Stephan Barratt-Due, “The depth given by adding a double bass, and the variety in using solos and tutti, gives in our opinion, the pieces a new dimension combining both the intimacy of Grieg and lifting the richness of the romantic expression in the pieces.” That gain in rich sonority must be offset against the loss of contrast. In comparison with the leaner sound of a string quartet, there is a certain inevitable homogeneity produced by a larger, beautifully co-ordinated string band. It tends to emphasise the more consolatory ideas at the expense of the stark immediacy created by the harmonic clashes of only four instruments. Romantic yearnings predominate over raw, psychological anguish. Nonetheless, this is another, valid way to experience music which comprehensively puts to bed any lingering caricature of Grieg as a chocolate-box composer. This is not perhaps amongst Grieg’s best or indeed most popular music. One senses that he was not entirely comfortable in the idiom, which might explain why he left incomplete the second quartet, begun in 1891 and still unfinished at his death, and why certain musical ideas occasionally seem to lack inspiration. On the other hand, so much is skilled and delightful that the music is self-recommending to anyone who wants to explore Grieg’s output in different guises.
Tempi are very similar to previous string quartet versions, so there is no unseemly lingering and no lack of tension. If you want to hear the original string quartet version, I recommend that by the Raphael Quartet, available either as a single Regis disc or as part of a 3 CD Brilliant issue of Grieg’s complete chamber music. They play the completed version of the second F major quartet, whereas here we have only the first two movements, giving room for another item.
In truth, although it was enterprising idea to include recently deceased Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Rendezvous as a twenty-minute makeweight, I would sooner have had the third and fourth movements of the F major quartet as completed by Grieg’s friend, Julius Röntgen. Rendezvous is the result of the composer following his predecessor’s precedent and in 1986 expanding his quartet so that it can be played by a string orchestra. It is an intense, gloomy work exploiting the contrast between grumbling lower and soaring upper strings. It is one which I shall leave others to comment upon, as it is not in an idiom to which I respond, being mostly to my ears reminiscent of Shostakovich in hyper-depressive mode.
The second disc, conducted by Bjarte Engeset, who contributes a long and very informative essay in the CD notes, is Volume 6 in the acclaimed Naxos “Grieg Edition”: a compilation of Grieg’s finest music for strings, reflecting his love of mountains, folk music, folk tales and all things Norwegian. Although Grieg’s voice is always his own, international influences resulting from his travels to Leipzig, Copenhagen and Rome and his exposure to Wagner’s orchestration are clearly apparent. Debussy’s oft-quoted aphorism that when listening to the Lyric Pieces “one has in one's mouth that bizarre yet delightful taste of pink bon-bons filled with snow” applies far more to this collection in general than to the arrangements of the string quartets. It is often assumed that Debussy’s observation carried more than a hint of a sneer about it yet a more generous interpretation could embrace the idea that it conveys the cool, bracing streak in Grieg’s music which offsets sentimentality. Certainly there is often a darkness or a melancholy about it which pulls at the heart-strings. The two concluding movements of the Holberg Suite are typical of the profound, elegiac quality Grieg can evoke through the simplest of means such as the dialogue between the upper and lower strings in the Air or the duet between solo violin and solo viola in the Rigaudon, both exploiting the pathos of G minor. The words “lyric” and “elegy” are by no means antithetical in Grieg. The profound loneliness of a distant, keening oboe which begins Evening in the Mountains has something of the quality of the shepherd’s cor anglais in the opening of Tristan und Isolde. Grieg wrote in a letter to his biographer that the “essential feature of Norwegian folksongs … is a deep melancholy … mysterious darkness and unbridled wildness”, qualities typified in the impassioned performance here of In Folk Style, the first of the Two Nordic Melodies. Yet when Grieg is in pure pastoral mode, such as in the simple, beguiling melody of Cow-Call, nothing could be more charming and insouciant.
The standard of playing on both discs is very high throughout. I prefer a little more pace and attack in the Prelude of the Holberg Suite but by and large everything – instrumental balance, phrasing, tempi and colouration – is judged to a nicety.
The sound quality of both recordings is exemplary; these days, especially where Naxos is concerned, it is rare for it to be otherwise. Even though they contain mainly miniatures and music specifically orchestrated to fall pleasantly in the ear, these two releases amply illustrate the combination of rare and contradictory qualities which make Grieg Norway’s greatest composer.

Ralph Moore

Music that falls pleasantly in the ear.

see review by Paul Corfield Godfrey (Naxos 8.572441)

see reviews by Brian Reinhart and Stephen Vasta (Naxos 8.572403)