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La Mer Ticciati
Cantatas for Soprano
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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Lyric Pieces (selection)
Paul Crossley (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, no date given CRD 3525 [78:54]
I suppose Grieg counts as a second-rank composer, as he wrote no symphonies, only one concerto and concentrated on chamber music, piano music and songs. However, he was an absolute master of the miniature and his Lyric Pieces for piano are a treasure house of gems. He seems to have modelled them on the pieces Schumann wove into his piano cycles but without Schumann’s feverish intensity, obsessive rhythms or his sometimes agonized moods. They are basically simple pieces, but beautifully fashioned. He also accepted influences from his native Norwegian folk music and later from other composers of the time. However, he could also be prescient and some of the pieces anticipate much later works. There are ten books in all, and here we have selections from all ten.
The pieces may be simple but I must qualify this: they are simple in the way that Mozart can be simple. That is, they do not call for the extremes of virtuosity which involve playing fast or loud or using a great deal of finger dexterity. Yet in shaping melodies, providing harmonic support which subtly adjusts to the melodic line and to changing harmonies, in creating moods and characterization, they call for a great deal of skill and subtlety in the pianist.
Paul Crossley is well placed to offer this. I suppose his main claim to fame is his association with Tippett, who wrote his last two piano sonatas for him; Crossley’s recording of all four is still a mainstay of the catalogue (CRD 34301). Otherwise he is best known for his recordings of French music and I should also add his superb set of late Scriabin excluding the sonatas (CRD 3524). The skills required to succeed with French music are very relevant to Grieg’s requirements: subtlety, a delicate touch, careful balancing and understanding of harmonic shifts, unobtrusive handling of the sustaining pedal and the ability to characterize quickly and sharply a succession of miniatures. He has all these, and also a lovely glowing tone, to which the engineers have done justice.
I cannot discuss all twenty four of the pieces he has chosen but I can give a few pointers, mostly using the English titles. The well-known ‘Butterfly’ Op. 43 No.1 is capricious and playful, close to Chopin but nowhere near Liszt. Yet several of the pieces, such as ‘Solitary Wanderer’, the next piece in Op. 43, or the ‘Notturno’ Op.54 No. 4 and ‘Evening in the mountains’ Op. 68 No.4 are evocations of scenery which could have come from Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Grieg loved solitary walking in the mountains and many of the pieces evoke this, not only ‘Solitary Wanderer’ but also ‘Shepherd Boy’ Op. 54. No. 1 and ‘Peace in the woods’, Op. 71 No. 4.. The driving energy of the ‘Scherzo’ Op. 54 No. 5 and ‘Puck’ Op. 71 No. 3 is close to Prokofiev and the harmony of ‘To Spring’ Op 43. No. 6 suggests early Scriabin. Crossley, who wrote his own, very informative sleevenote, explains that ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ Op. 65 No. 6 was probably based on Grieg’s own silver wedding celebration, with the arrival and departure of the well-wishers framing a central love-duet. The outer sections are among the few more public sections in these pieces. As he also points out, there is a valedictory quality to the last few pieces, which he captures very touchingly.
The obvious point of comparison is Emil Gilels’s celebrated disc, now on DG originals 4497212. Gilels only discovered these pieces relatively late in his career, as he said that in Russia only teachers and children played them. He prepared very carefully for the recording and it is amazing to hear a pianist associated with massive works such as the Hammerklavier sonata and the Brahms concertos refining down his technique to do justice to these delicate works. He is wonderfully atmospheric and, in the few faster numbers, more obviously virtuosic than Crossley. However, on direct comparisons – and Crossley has chosen a number of the same pieces as Gilels – slightly to my surprise I found Crossley offering the sharper characterization. I should add that Gilels’s disc is analogue and now over forty years old. A more recent contender is Leif Ove Andsnes on Warner Classics 5572962, who plays on Grieg’s own piano, a recording which has been highly praised but which I have not heard. If you want all sixty six pieces, these run to a three disc set, and Nicholas Roth on the Blue Griffin label BLGF145 has been praised, but may be difficult to get hold of in the UK.
As I mentioned, Crossley writes his own sleevenote and very helpful it is too, though in English only. The contents are listed with the titles in German (not Norwegian) and English. CRD give Crossley an excellent recording which does justice to his warm tone so anyone who wants a recent selection of these lovely pieces should be well pleased with this.
Stephen Barber Contents Book I, Op. 12 (composed 1866-7?; published 1867)
No. 1, Arietta [1:29]
No. 2, Vals (Waltz) [1:49] Book II, Op. 38 (mostly composed 1883; published 1883)
No. 1, Berceuse [3:15] Book III, Op. 43 (composed probably 1886; published 1886)
No. 1, Sommerfugl (Butterfly) [2:04]
No. 2, Ensom vandrer (Solitary wanderer) [2:25]
No. 4, Liten fugl (Little bird) [1:41]
No. 5, Erotikk (Erotic) [3:12]
No. 6, Til våren (To Spring) [2:55] Book IV, Op. 47 ( mostly composed 1886-8; published 1888)
No. 2, Albumblad (Albumleaf) [3:37]
No. 4, Halling (Fling Dance) [1:34] Book V, Op. 54 (composed 1889–91; published 1891)
No. 1, Gjetergutt (Shepherd boy) [5:00]
No. 4, Notturno [4:22]
No. 5, Scherzo [3:06] Book VI, Op. 57 (composed 1890?–3; published 1893)
No. 6, Heimweh (Homesickness) [4:59] Book VII, Op. 62 (composed 1893?–5; published 1895)
No. 5, Drømmesyn (Vision) [3:09] Book VIII, Op. 65 (composed 1896; published 1897)
No. 5, I balladetone (Ballad) [3:27]
No. 6, Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen (Wedding Day at Troldhaugen) [7:05] Book IX, Op. 68 (composed 1898-9; published 1899):
No. 3, For dine føtter (At your feet) [3:26]
No. 4, Aften på højfjellet (Evening in the mountains) [3:23] Book X, Op. 71 (composed and published 1901)
No. 1, Det var engang (Once upon a time) [4:11]
No. 3, Småtroll (Puck) 1:36]
No. 4, Skogstillhet (Peace in the woods) [5:02]
No. 7, Efterklang (Remembrances) [2:16]