Grieg is most widely known to the general public for his Piano Concerto and the incidental music he wrote for Peer Gynt. The three Violin Sonatas are a relatively unfamiliar part of his output, despite being among his own favourite pieces. Violins Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 come from 1865 and 1867, when Grieg was in his early twenties. The third sonata is a more mature work written some twenty years later.
At heart, Grieg was a miniaturist as his substantial output of piano music testifies. He never wrote a Violin Concerto but now the foremost Norwegian violinist of his generation, Henning Kraggerud, assisted by Bernt Simen Lund, a member of the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra, has taken up the challenge of creating three new concertos from the sonatas. Kraggerud's excellent booklet notes explain exactly how they produced these “concertos” from the original material. Thankfully, the orchestrations are restrained and tasteful, written as they are for a small orchestra comprising woodwinds and strings. This approach has successfully avoided the temptation of making the original, intimate, chamber works overblown in their new orchestral clothing. The results are very “Grieg like” and a joy to listen to. The use of the solo oboe and solo flute in the slow movements gives the music an authentic feeling of nostalgia and yearning. In other places the world of the Elegiac Melodies and the Cow Keeper’s Tune isn’t far away. There is no doubting the expertise demonstrated in these orchestrations and the performances given here are superlative.
Having said that do three sonatas, inflated by replacing the piano accompaniment with an orchestra, actually produce three violin concertos? My feeling is that what we have by way of a result is a series of delightful, varied movements for violin and orchestra rather than three concertos. No matter, you need to listen to the results without preconceptions and accept the music as it is. Treat it as you would Peer Gynt and you won’t go far wrong. On that basis, what we have here is a winner.
The music is tuneful and appealing and there’s no doubting the love and dedication that the soloist and his orchestra have for Grieg’s work. The Tromsø Chamber Orchestra sounds glorious and they give of their best throughout. They are certainly a formidable groups of musicians. Kraggerud’s performances are magnificent and his bright, clean tone always shines through. When required, he also shows considerable virtuosity and nimble finger work in the faster passages, such as in the finale of Concerto No.1. This is music making of the very highest order.
The quality of the recording is exceptional. Balance between soloist and orchestra is excellent and the sound has an appealing, natural warmth. This is - of its type - a magnificent disc but it’s important not to approach is as a purist and get sniffy about the results. Just listen to it as you would any other orchestral disc. If this recording encourages people to search out the original sonatas (which I personally prefer) then the whole project in my book has been well worth doing.
This is in essence a novelty disc, brilliantly executed and very well produced. It makes a refreshing change from listening to yet another recording of a warhorse concerto from the standard repertoire. Naxos must be applauded for their continuing mission to bring something new to the table. I am looking forward to hearing what else this superb team may have in the pipeline for us.