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Edvard GRIEG (1845-1907)
Lyric Pieces
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. 2014, St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, U.K.
HYPERION CDA68070 [73:08]

There are ten volumes of Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces and the best of these short pieces have entered the repertoire as justifiably popular works, though their relative technical simplicity meant that in the past only a few pianists took them seriously as concert works. The booklet notes for this release open with the admiring words Tchaikovsky had for Grieg, and Brahms was also a friend who held him in high regard. This kind of collection reminds us that there is much more to Grieg than the Piano Concerto and highlights from Peer Gynt.

Any recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces will inevitably come up in comparison against the classic Deutsche Grammophon recording made by Emil Gilels in 1974. Both begin with the Arietta which is the very first of the first book, but if you are used to the poetry of Gilels’ reading then you will need to adjust your expectations when embarking on Stephen Hough’s collection. His Arietta is swifter, but filled with rubato and expressive inflections which add all kinds of extra detail and, alas, baggage not wanted on voyage. I’m all for the individual touch and for personal expressiveness, but this is one little piece which is most memorable for its disarming simplicity. It is the touch of the pianist rather than the addition of interpretational nuance which delivers its song, and for my taste it is Gilels who gets it right. Hough cleverly frames his selection by concluding with Remembrances as a final track, which is a variation on the Arietta. This waltz version can handle its teasing time-stretching with ease, but even this gentle finale doesn’t excuse the opening.

The opening Arietta is just one little piece of not much more than a minute’s duration, but it set my alarm status to pink-alert at the start. Fortunately any concerns were soon diffused by the character and sheer sense of warmth and empathy emanating from the pieces further along. I fear the pearlescent touch of Gilels will forever have spoilt me for whoever comes after, but Hough is amongst the cream of an increasingly rich crop of choices. For a complete Lyric Pieces you might want to turn to Aldo Ciccolini, whose three CD set for Cascavelle is very good indeed (review). Naxos has some nice recordings with Einar Steen-Nokleberg giving sterling if not very poetic service on 8.553394 and 8.553396, and the Amadis label also has a complete set played by Marian Lapsansky, though this is another example where pianism all too often takes precedence over lyricism.

Thus re-orientated, you can return to Stephen Hough and truly appreciate where he approaches the essence of Grieg rather than demonstrating prowess at the keyboard. There is a quality of holding back and of power in reserve, even where there might appear to be licence for more explosive pianism. The Wagnerian touch to Erotikon for instance, is filled with colour, but this and other climaxes are held in proportion to the brief duration of the piece, the music gaining in texture for not being forced, the sonority created by dynamic contrast and Grieg’s exploration of the character of the instrument in its different registers sufficient to create all of the effect which is required. That’s not to say that there is no excitement here, evidenced by the impact of the following piece To Spring or further along in From early years.

The choice of pieces is very nice for this release, combining popular and famous works such as the March of the Trolls with less frequently played but often more fascinating pieces. I had for instance forgotten how gripping the tonal strangeness of the Valse-impromptu can be, or the surprising slipperiness of the Sylph. Even where the music has melancholy overtones you sense a creative joy from the composer and from the pianist, the means given for expressing Homesickness or other aspects of longing or regret a source of strength as well as a place to allow sad feelings to live without seeing them taking over our lives entirely.

Superbly recorded in the rich but not overbearingly resonant St George’s, Brandon Hill in Bristol, this is a highly attractive and deeply desirable collection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. I’m sure no-one will mind if I start my listening from track 2, but I can assure fans and newcomers alike that this is a disc to treasure.

Dominy Clements
Arietta (No 1 from Lyric Pieces Book 1, Op 12) [1:09]
Vuggevise (No 1, 'Berceuse' from Lyric Pieces Book 2, Op 38) [2:33]
Elegi (No 6, 'Elegy' from Lyric Pieces Book 2, Op 38) [2:27]
Sommerfugl (No 1, 'Butterfly' from Lyric Pieces Book 3, Op 43) [1:44]
Ensom vandrer (No 2, 'Solitary traveller' from Lyric Pieces Book 3, Op 43) [1:41]
I hjemmet (No 3, 'In my native country' from Lyric Pieces Book 3, Op 43) [1:47]
Småfugl (No 4, 'Little bird' from Lyric Pieces Book 3, Op 43)[1:39]
Erotikk (No 5, 'Erotikon' from Lyric Pieces Book 3, Op 43) [2:23]
Til våren (No 6, 'To spring' from Lyric Pieces Book 3, Op 43) [3:07]
Valse-impromptu (No 1 of Lyric Pieces Book 4, Op 47) [3:23]
Melodi (No 3, 'Melody' from Lyric Pieces Book 4, Op 47) [2:46]
Elegi (No 7, 'Elegy' from Lyric Pieces Book 4, Op 47) [3:11]
Trolltog (No 3, 'March of the trolls' from Lyric Pieces Book 5, Op 54) [3:00]
Notturno (No 4 of Lyric Pieces Book 5, Op 54) [3:54]
Klokkeklang (No 6, 'Bell ringing' from Lyric Pieces Book 5, Op 54) [3:31]
Hjemve (No 6, 'Homesickness' from Lyric Pieces Book 6, Op 57) [3:36]
Sylfide (No 1, 'Sylph' from Lyric Pieces Book 7, Op 62) [1:27]
Hjemad (No 6, 'Homeward' from Lyric Pieces Book 7, Op 62) [3:03]
Fra ungdomsdagene (No 1, 'From early years' from Lyric Pieces Book 8, Op 65) [4:47]
Salong (No 4, 'Salon' from Lyric Pieces Book 8, Op 65) [2:09]
Bryllupsday på Troldhaugen (No 6, 'Wedding day at Troldhaugen' from Lyric Pieces Book 8, Op 65) [5:58]
Bestemors menuett (No 2, 'Grandmother's minuet' from Lyric Pieces Book 9, Op 68) [2:12]
For dine fötter (No 3, 'At your feet' from Lyric Pieces Book 9, Op 68) [3:11]
Bådnlåt (No 5, 'At the cradle' from Lyric Pieces Book 9, Op 68) [2:26]
Sommeraften (No 2, 'Summer's eve' from Lyric Pieces Book 10, Op 71) [2:17]
Småtroll (No 3, 'Puck' from Lyric Pieces Book 10, Op 71) [1:55]
Efterklang (No 7, 'Remembrances' from Lyric Pieces Book 10, Op 71) [1:51]