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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Incidental Music to Peer Gynt, Op 23 (1874-5, revised 1885, 1891-92 and 1902) [54:39]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16 (1868, revised 1907) [28:21]
Lise Davidsen, Ann-Helen Moen, Victoria Nava (sopranos), Johannes Weisser (baritone),
Håkon Høgemo (Hardanger Fiddle),
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Bergen Pikekor; Bergen Guttekor; Edvard Grieg Ungdomskor; Edvard Grieg Kor;
Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2016/17, Grieghallen, Bergen
Full texts and translations included
Reviewed in Stereo and SACD multi-channel

This is a lovely disc. It was only a matter of time before Edward Gardner’s association with the Bergen Philharmonic would result in his recording their most characteristic repertoire, and the results are lovely.
The collection from Peer Gynt works beautifully, and I enjoyed the selection of numbers, which gives us more than just the suites. Grieg once described Ibsen’s play as “the most unmusical of subjects”, but the play is a triumph of eclecticism, and so is Grieg’s music. So, too, is this performance, which embraces the sheer diversity of situation and mood most effectively. Take the very opening track at the wedding scene, for example: the ebullience of the wedding celebration melts into gorgeous first appearance of Solveig’s theme, the wind soloists sounding sensational here. The ensuing folk tune then has a hint of the sinister to it, curdling into a grin in a most effective way, exemplifying the work’s and the performance’s eclecticism within just a few moments. These players have this music in their blood and it comes out wonderfully. They’ve even gone to the trouble of getting a proper Hardanger fiddle, making the Halling folk dances sound even more authentic and earthy. Elsewhere the folk elements are all there in moments like the dance of the Mountain King’s daughter, which is here helped by a superbly recorded xylophone. The strings have a real edge to them in the Abduction of the Bride (Ingrid’s Lament) and Gardner unfolds the intensity of the growing crescendo masterfully. Both those things are also true of Hall of Mountain King. Åase’s Death, on the other hand, is extraordinarily intense and very moving, though Gardner holds back a little too much for my taste at the anguished climax. The pellucid textures of Morning are like a tonic after this darkness, as is the twinkle of the Arabian Dance and Anitra’s dance gyrates like a temptress. The storm scene generates great excitement, and the strings sound sensationally warm as they put the final lullaby to bed.

The vocal numbers ooze character, and it helps that full texts and translations are provided in the CD booklet. The three herd girls have a whale of a time flirting with the (earthily acted) Peer of Johannes Weisser. Lise Davidsen is in gorgeously rich voice as Anitra and Ann-Helen Moen makes Solveig sound both fragile and wounded, with lovely string tone into the bargain. The chorus sound rather close-up but they sing well, and they are at their best when at their quietest in the Whitsun Hymn.

Chandos’ recording is typically excellent here, and the clarity of the recorded sound really helps the piano concerto come to life, too. The opening tumble has a lovely amount of space around it, and the orchestra’s role throughout is perfectly balanced against the soloist. Gardner unfolds the opening with a sense of mystery - no mean feat in this most familiar of concertos! - and the orchestra really seem to enjoy his vision. The soft-toned strings at the beginning of the slow movement are a dream and the pellucid solo flute in the finale is a treat.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays with the experience of a sage and the skill of a master technician, making him just about ideal for this music. He weaves a web around the orchestral sound at the start of the first movement’s development, sounding beautifully discrete, but he gives a marvellously muscular cadenza. His way with the slow movement is fairly free and flexible, though he gives way to sheer beauty of tone in the final moments, before launching a finale that is both hair-raisingly exciting and tremendously fun. The bounce of the main theme’s final reappearance will induce a smile, as will the thunderous assurance of the final bars.

Everyone will already have their own favourite recording of the Piano Concerto, of course, and this one might not quite displace Perianes’ BBC performance among recent versions, but it’s still very good. When it comes to Peer Gynt you can’t ignore Beecham’s collection, of course, and Järvi’s completely complete Gothenburg set remains essential, but this is most definitely worthy to sit next to them.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Richard Hanlon