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CD Review

Edvard Grieg

Songs with Orchestra

  • Det første møde
  • Solveigs sang
  • Solveigs vuggesang
  • Fra Monte Pincio 1
  • En swane
  • Våren
  • Henrik Wergeland 2
  • The Mountain Thrall, Op. 32 1
  • Before a Southern Convent, Op. 20 2,3
  • Bergliot, Op. 42 3
Barbara Bonney, soprano
1 Håkan Hagegård, baritone
2 Randi Stene, mezzo soprano
3 Rut Tellefsen, narrator
3 Gothenburg Symphony Women's Chorus
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Deutsche Grammophon 437519-2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Magic.

If you asked a nineteenth-century aficionado his favorite composer, the answer "Edvard Grieg" shouldn't have surprised you. Grieg's music sold in buckets. His German publishers used to hang out a special flag at their shops and would sell out Grieg's latest in a matter of days. Some of this stems from Grieg confining much of his output to piano pieces and songs – works that appealed to the then-large market for amateur and home musicians. With the decline of that market and the shrinking of professional repertoire for Lieder singers to certain works by Schubert and Schumann, people don't know Grieg's songs as well as they should. Song of Norway doesn't so much as hint at the treasure hidden in his catalogue.

This CD goes a long way to showing Grieg's stature as a songwriter. The first seven songs all exist in versions for voice and piano. Grieg decided to orchestrate them, collected six of them in a set, but never gave them an opus number. The two Solveig songs, of course, come from the incidental music to Peer Gynt, and "Våren" also shows up in a purely instrumental version for strings. That these songs sound nothing like German Lied constitutes their great strength. Grieg's harmonies and turns of melody represent, as it turns out, a quiet revolution from German-centered Romanticism to the beginnings of Modernism. Debussy had split acrimoniously with Grieg over the Dreyfus affair (Grieg sided with Dreyfus) and disparaged the music as "a pink bonbon stuffed with snow," which to me actually seems, minus the sarcasm, a pretty neat description. Nevertheless, he based his own string quartet on Grieg's and rhapsodized over Peer Gynt. Frederick Delius remarked, "Modern French music is simply Grieg, plus the third act of Tristan." Ravel agreed.

Unlike Schubert with Goethe and Heine or Mahler with Rückert, Grieg, as far as I know, never worked with first-rate poets or poems. Ibsen's poems (at least the ones that Grieg turned into songs) don't qualify. Many of his major vocal projects, including the cantata Landkjending and the incomplete opera Olav Trygvason, are collaborations with the Norwegian nationalist poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Still, Bjørnson's rather conventional "Det første møde" (the first meeting) shows that a great song doesn't need a great text. A ravishing melody, perfectly and unpredictably harmonized, it sounds as natural as a freshwater spring. Bjørnson's "Fra Monte Pincio" became one of Grieg's most popular during his lifetime. It's a Roman travelogue, very well done, and Grieg loads it with uncomplicated touches of genius that lift it above the usual 19th-century musical postcard. The Solveig songs just about define Nordic music for me: the deep melancholy, the crisp harmonies, the brief, ecstatic instants. The same holds for "Våren" (Spring), one of Grieg's most memorable melodies. Ibsen's "En svane" (a swan) is all about color. Here, you can see obvious connections to Debussy and Ravel. A tribute to Norway's pioneering nationalist poet, Henrik Wergeland, attacked during his brief life as Keats was in his and venerated after, Grieg's setting of a poem by a friend, John Paulsen, addresses Wergeland as a "savior" of his country and builds to an heroic climax.

The Mountain Thrall, based on a folk poem, combines elements of "Erlkönig" and "La belle dame sans merci." The text is straightforward ballad form. Grieg alludes to ballad, but doesn't stick to it. The work breaks into four parts: a lament, where the speaker, who has lost his way and come into the notice of the troll king, becomes enchanted by the troll's daughter; a "chase," where the troll hunts the speaker; another lament, where the speaker bewails his fate, lost forever to his own people; a repeat of the opening. Again, Grieg has mastered the simple, telling stroke.

"Before a Southern Convent," to another poem by Bjørnson, is both more elaborate (it includes two women soloists and a women's chorus) and less successful. For once, the text has more possibilities than the music can handle. A young Nordic woman, whose family has been murdered and who has eluded rape, shows up at an Italian convent, and the nuns take her in. Grieg simplifies and falsifies a complex situation into something conventional. Instead of the underlying violence and injustice of the story, we get the sentimental trope of the penitent granted salvation. What has the girl to atone for? The rapist-murderer disappears in a few measures, apparently undeterred from his dual career. Grieg saves his firepower, such as it is, for the Sunday-School ending.

The genre of melodrama (spoken text to musical accompaniment) goes back at least to Mozart. It had great popularity in the 19th century, with examples from major composers, including Berlioz, Massenet, and Richard Strauss, and has seen a revival of sorts in the 20th century, among scores by Walton, Stravinsky, Copland, Vaughan Williams, and Schoenberg. Bergliot (Bjørnson yet again) is Grieg's contribution. As opposed to "Before a Southern Convent," Grieg responds to the psychological complexity of Bjørnson's text. Bergliot, wife of chieftain Einar Tambarskjeve and mother of his son, Eindride, learns that King Harald has treacherously slain both under the ruse of parley. She first calls for vengeance and realizes that none of Einar's followers will rise against the king. At first, she rails against them and then accepts the fact. The work ends with a magnificent lament for her dead and her desolation. Bergliot suffers from the looseness almost inherent in melodrama. One unrelated section follows another, but what magnificent sections! Bergliot contains some of Grieg's most powerful music.

I've dumped on Järvi and the Gothenburgers' Grieg before, but this is one fine disc, due in no small part to the soloists. Barbara Bonney is radiant. I've never heard Grieg (or almost anybody else) sung so rapturously. Hagegård may not have the most beautiful baritone in the world, but few singers can match his acting chops or his feeling for poetry. Randi Stene, as the southern convent's nun, offers appropriate sympathy. Since I don't speak Norwegian, I have no real idea of how well speaker Rut Tellefsen acts her part. She seems to risk overshooting the mark, but, then again, the drama of the text demands that risk. Nevertheless, I do respond to the music in her declamation.

If you like Grieg at all, I highly recommend this disc.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.