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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Landkjenning, Op.31 (1872) [6.38]1 Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op.22 (1872): two choruses [10.06]2 and other excerpts [7.13]3 Olav Trygvason, Op.50 (1873) [37.28]4 Edmund NEUPERT (1842-88) Resignation, Op.26/1 (orch. Grieg, 1895 version) [2.53]5
Yngve Solberg1 (baritone), Helge Rønning2 (tenor), Magne Fremmerlid4 (bass), Nina Gravrok4 (soprano), Marianne E Andersen4 (mezzo)
Malmö Chamber Choir12, Lund Student Singers12, Malmö Opera Chorus4,
Malmö Symphony Orchestra12, Malmö Opera Orchestra345/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Concert Hall of Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, 26 May 200912 and 7-9 June 2012345 NAXOS 8.573045 [64.19]
Per Dreier recorded the complete music for Peer Gynt for Unicorn in 1978 (RHS361-2 reissued on CD as UKCD2003-4). It was only then that most listeners began to appreciate that Grieg was much more than the miniaturist which, apart from his ubiquitous Piano Concerto, we had always believed him to be. Here was a composer who also had a real talent for dramatic music. The incidental music to Ibsen’s play included a great many scenes of hair-raising impact which Grieg largely removed when he extracted the two suites for publication. Indeed the complete score has now received a number of recordings (Engeset, Neeme Järvi; Ruud; Paavo Järvi (Virgin)), many including the substantial sections of melodrama and spoken dialogue which are necessary to realise a complete comprehension of the work.
Grieg’s expeditions into the field of drama however extended well beyond Peer Gynt. Most of his other music for the theatre was written in collaboration with Bjørnsterne Bjørnson (1832-1910). All the music on this disc derives from that collaboration. We have the ‘torso’ of the incomplete opera Olav Trygvason, the cantata Landkjenning from the same legendary source, incidental music for the play and amazingly the world première recording of Grieg’s orchestration of a piece by Edmund Neupert to which Bjørnson at one time set words. It should be noted that in 1979 Dreier also recorded Olav Trygvason and Landkjenning alongside choral episodes from Act 5 of Gynt (RHS364 reissued as UKCD2005) and the Sigurd Jorsalfar music alongside Bergtekne (KP8003 reissued as UKCD2019).
The major work here however is decidedly the ‘torso’ (Grieg’s own description) of Olav Trygvason. The libretto was left incomplete when Bjørnson moved on to other projects and Grieg began work on Peer Gynt. The topic which was to be treated - the conversion of Norway to Christianity - was later taken over by Elgar in his Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf to words by Longfellow as adapted by Elgar’s friend Acworth. That cantata, one of the best of Elgar’s works before Gerontius even if sometimes uneven in quality, is decidedly more dramatic than Grieg; but the margin is not so great as might be imagined. The opening scenes set by Grieg treat of the pagan rites before the arrival of Olav. While the influence of works such as Mendelssohn’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht is sometimes evident there is also a sense of dramatic involvement here which surpasses even Grieg’s Night scene for Peer Gynt. The opening scene is however somewhat let down by the singing of Magne Fremmerlid whose rather woolly tones don’t really convey enough menace; Asbjørn Hansli in Per Dreier’s première recording is decidedly firmer. The remainder of the singing and the orchestral playing have plenty of fire and guts.
We are also given Grieg’s cantata Landkjenning, a work written a year before Grieg began work on the opera which nevertheless shares the same subject matter and can perhaps be treated as a sort of choral epigraph to it. We also get the chance to hear a short piece of music written for Olav himself. It is lyrically sung here by Yngve Soberg. Again the performance - with different chorus and orchestra but the same conductor as in Olav Trygvason - is full of energy. One feels though that Naxos have missed a trick by separating it from the operatic scenes and placing it at the beginning of the disc, with the excerpts from Sigurd Jorsalfar in between.
The music we are given here from Sigurd Jorsalfar comprise approximately one half of the complete score; Neeme Järvi’s DG recording runs to over half an hour. We do get all the major items with the exception of the Homage March, the best-known piece from the work, which was included in a previous Naxos collection. It would have been valuable to have it again here, however, since it forms the lynchpin from which much of the other material derives. The other omissions are mainly repeated passages designed to cover scene-changes and are therefore a less severe loss. By way of compensation we are given an additional 22 bars in the First Interlude which were crossed out of the manuscript score and remained unpublished. Bjarte Engeset in his booklet note observes that the deletion does not appear to be in the composer’s handwriting. Järvi does not include these, and it may well be that this is the first appearance of this section of the music in any recording. The two choral numbers are well delivered by the same choir as in Landkjenning, with a very personable soloist in the shape of Helge Rønning.
To conclude we have the world première recording of Neupert’s Resignation in Grieg’s orchestration. This was originally a piano piece, but Bjørnson put words to the melody and Grieg prepared a version for solo singer, horns and strings. That however is not the version we are given here, but a later purely orchestral transcription. Although it might have been nice to hear Bjørnson’s words the later arrangement is a gem in Grieg’s best miniaturist style.
Naxos have done Grieg proud over the years, producing many discs which have considerably extended our knowledge of a composer whose range of expression was wider than is sometimes allowed. This is a valuable addition to that collection, generally well performed and superbly recorded. The extensive booklet note by the conductor is wide-ranging and informative. Although texts and translations are not included they can be downloaded from the Naxos website.