Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Peer Gynt Suite no.1, op.46:
Morning Mood [4:39]
Aase’s Death [4:13]
Anitra’s Dance [3:39]
In the Hall of the Mountain King [2:37]
Peer Gynt Suite no.2, op.55
Arabian Dance [4:45]
Peer Gynt’s Return [3:17]
Four Norwegian Dances, op.35:
No.1 in D minor [6:57]
No.2 in A [2:14]
No.3 in G [3:07]
No.4 in D [5:33]
English Chamber Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
rec. November 1975 at Walthamstow Town Hall, London PENTATONE PTC5186231 SACD [50:05]
Raymond Leppard’s name was one which loomed very large and promised much in the 1960s and 70s. He became famous for his exciting realisations of Baroque operas by Monteverdi, Cavalli and others. It is possible that he found himself somewhat outflanked by the period instrument movement, which laid the emphasis on ‘authenticity’, while Leppard was more interested in creating versions of Baroque masterpieces using modern instruments, that would appeal to new, wider audiences. That may have been what caused him to move on in the 1970s to pastures new, and work with orchestras on the more ‘standard’ repertoire. A superb musician, and a man of great charm – possibly too much for his own good – whom many felt was not always entirely comfortable in the role of the orchestral ‘maestro’.
These meticulous and high quality recordings are entirely worthy of him. He worked extensively with the English Chamber Orchestra, and this 1975 programme is a product of that partnership. I must say that the Dutch label Pentatone have done a splendid job of remastering, though I doubt if anything deeply radical was necessary.
The famous Peer Gynt Suites receive excellent readings, meticulous yet strongly characterised. I do regret the lack of any vocal contribution; choral forces add greatly to both In The Hall of the Mountain-King and the Arabian Dance, while Solveig’s Song is one of Grieg’s most haunting melodies, and, though the ECO strings play it with great sensitivity here, I missed that extra element added so tellingly by, for example, Camilla Tilling on the recent Audite recording (92.671).
That said, these are splendid performances, the least satisfactory number being, strangely, the most famous of them all, Morning, which feels too self-consciously expressive, not quite flowing as naturally as it should. But from there on, things improve steeply, and, as suggested above, the orchestral playing is really very fine. The ECO in this period had some of the finest wind players in London on its books - bassoonist Martin Gatt and oboist Celia Nicklin to name but two - and the string playing here is very much in the same class.
This is of course highly competitive territory, with many superb recordings available - Paavo Järvi’s recording of the complete music on EMI is outstanding – but, nonetheless, it is an attractive option to have the best-known Peer Gynt numbers alongside the Four Norwegian Dances. The latter are clearly modelled on Brahms’s Hungarian Dances and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, and were, like them, first written as piano duets. They are given delightful performances, full of colour and wit, capturing the ‘Mountain-King’ energy of no.1, the strolling oboe theme of no.2, the rustic dancing of no.3, and, as a rousing finale, the bustling bucolic march of no.4.
Wonderful music played with an obvious sense of enjoyment; a fitting memento of a fine musical partnership.