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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor (rev. Percy Grainger) [27:12]
Fragments of a concerto in B minor [2:34]
With a Water Lily (arr. Evju) [2:12]
A Dream (arr. Evju) [2:29]
Helge EVJU (b.1942)
Piano Concerto in B minor (based on Grieg’s fragments) [22:07]
Carl Petersson (piano)
Prague Radio Symphony/Kerry Stratton
rec. 2014, Studio S1, Czech Radio, Prague; Studiescenen, Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen
GRAND PIANO GP689 [56:33]

Those listeners who collected Einar Steen-Nøkleberg’s recordings of the complete Grieg piano music will remember a series of short sketches for Grieg’s unfinished Piano Concerto No. 2. The composer did not get very far: the sketches only amount to three or four minutes of material, including what sounds like the theme of the finale and a bit of cadenza, or perhaps the ending of a dramatic first movement. Steen-Nøkleberg presents them as fragments, letting them fall off into long silences.

I always wondered if I, or a composer with real training, could build a good Grieg-style concerto out of these fragments. Now Helge Evju has given it his best shot, creating a 22-minute piece in five movements. Evju doesn’t really attempt to mimic Grieg’s language or style, and he doesn’t try to use the traditional allegro-adagio-rondo format, either. (In an engaging booklet essay, he calls the concerto a “piece of whimsy.”) The theme I thought clearly belonged in a finale gets used, by Evju, in his scherzo. The Evju concerto’s cadenza uses many of Grieg’s sketches verbatim. He also creates several “big tunes” of his own, borrowing from other parts of Grieg’s life work.

It’s important, as you listen, to keep in mind Evju’s phrase, “a piece of whimsy.” This is not a dramatic, or hugely virtuosic, or totally ear-catching concerto. It’s pleasant enough to sustain multiple listens, and written in a fun romantic style, but it’s not exactly a second Grieg concerto. Nor is it meant to be.

As a pairing, we get the fragmentary sketches by Grieg, plus a sizeable bonus: the original Grieg piano concerto we all know and love. Having said that, you may not yet know and love this performing edition, revised by Percy Grainger. Judging from the booklet essay, Grainger worked through the whole concerto carefully with Grieg himself, notating places where Grieg’s own playing deviated from the published score. There are also places where Grieg chose to edit his original.

Unfortunately, the good intentions are the best part of this performance. Nobody will need this recording of the original Grieg concerto: it’s too “safe,” too easygoing by far. There’s a peculiarity, in that the tempos are frequently faster than usual, but within each movement are episodes where that drive and speed are lost, and the dramatic line with them. And the orchestral playing, especially, lacks the ferocity of great northern orchestras. (Think of how aggressively Bjarte Engeset has his brass play on the Naxos disc.) If you can call live recordings distinctive for their risk-taking, thrills, or extra emotional charge, then this is distinctive for being a very studio-bound recording, with none of those things.

Carl Petersson is a good pianist, and an adventurous one, but he doesn’t seem to shoot for the stars with his Grieg concerto. And I don’t like how he plays the fragments Grieg left for his second concerto: Petersson strings them all together, without pausing, attempting to stitch them together into a coherent single work. They just aren’t, and the jumps between sketches are dizzying and weird. Einar Steen-Nøkleberg was smart to pause between fragments, and also did a better job differentiating the rhythms and tempos.

I liked listening to Helge Evju’s concerto. It’s enjoyable. Having said that, there’s really no other reason to acquire the CD, and I doubt that a slight 22-minute piece of whimsy is sufficient for you to make a purchase. This disc had a lot of promise, which leaves me even more disappointed.

Brian Reinhart


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