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CD Review

Edvard Grieg

Orchestral Works

  • Landkjending, Op. 31 *
  • Olav Trygvason, Op. 50 **
  • Peer Gynt Suite #1, Op. 46
  • Peer Gynt Suite #2, Op. 55
Håkan Hagegård, baritone
Randi Stene, mezzo-soprano
Anne Gjevang, contralto
* Gothenburg Symphony Male Chorus
** Gothenburg Symphony Chorus
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Deutsche Grammophon 437523-2
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Two warhorses and two comparative rarities, the latter collaborations with the Norwegian poet Bjornstjerne Bjornson, and both inspired by the figure of Norway's King Olav. Interestingly, both Landkjending and Trygvason were recorded together earlier, in a performance with the London Symphony and Oslo Philharmonic Chorus led by Per Dreier (now on Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2056). Landkjending (land-sighting), on Trygvason's Christianizing of Norway, from its opening bars stirs the blood. Sending Grieg the text, Bjornson wrote how much he loved his own poem and asked that the setting be "magnificent." He got his wish. You can just about see Olav and his Norseman catching sight of the fjords. Grieg set the text as a two-part song. After a brief orchestral introduction in which themes from both parts are heard, the first section rolls like a great ship with one of the best tunes from a master melodist. Grieg repeats it through the opening stanzas, but with great variety of orchestration, dynamic shift, and choral color. The baritone solo begins the second part: Trygavson's vision of the church he will build. Here the new tune curiously calls to mind part of Berlioz's Shepherd's Farewell from L'Enfance du Christ. The male chorus takes this up to the end. Obviously, a great deal depends on the chorus. The Gothenburgers simply don't have the heroic heft the music demands. Järvi and the orchestra set expectations high during the introduction, but the choristers disappoint with weak tone and intonation consistently and a bit sourly off tune.

The initial success of Landkjending encouraged Grieg and Bjornson to collaborate further. Both agreed to a national opera, again on the subject of Olav Trygvason. Bjornson, however, delayed completing the libretto (by at least seven years), and Grieg, who had composed music for three scenes, went off the boil. The opera remained a curious fragment – curious, because it brings up the old issue of why great songwriters don't necessarily make great opera composers, and vice versa.

A great opera isn't a simple matter of great tunes, as it often is with song. Gianni Schicchi, for example, has only one patented Puccini popover. Wagner's mature operas have almost no extended tunes at all, and the Wesendonk Lieder, fine as they are, inhabit an easier plane than the contemporary Tristan und Isolde. To me, it's a lyric poet vs. A dramatic one – that is, one who works to create a mood and another who builds with action and the conflict of opposing interests. Grieg thought of his song-writing as dramatic, and, in the song-cycle Haugtussa (about a girl going through a love affair), one sees his point. But he means by "dramatic" the presentation of strong emotion, not the technical meaning of action developing through conflict of opposing interests. The song cycle Haugtussa (and Schubert's song cycles, by the way) consists of several pictures, each one static. Together, the pictures tell a story. A dramatist, however, begins with a character trying to achieve one result, interrupted by another character seeking some other goal. Think, for example, of Marriage of Figaro where Figaro wants to marry Susanna, while the Count wants Susanna for himself, Cherubino wants the Countess, and the Countess wants the Count. It's like watching five fencers having at each other or a shooting-gallery target that changes direction as soon as it's hit. Olav Trygvason, like Haugtussa, consists of static tableau.

The first two scenes are rather slow going, and Järvi's matter-of-fact performance doesn't help. In fairness to Järvi, I recognize the difficulty of getting this music to move. The libretto consists mainly of a series of incantations and vows, and the music barely modulates or varies rhythm. At the third scene, with evocations of folk dance, Grieg suddenly catches fire, and Järvi and the Gothenburgers wake up. Still, if you must have Landkjending and the Trygvason fragments, go with Per Dreier.

If you want the Peer Gynt music, get the complete incidental music, and for that nobody beats Barbirolli (EMI Classics CDE67773). Blomstedt's set (London 425448-2), a fine job, doesn't come up to Glorious John, who fully justifies the epithet and is also blessed with soprano soloist Sheila Armstrong. As for the suites, Szell has far and away the best performance of the first suite with the Cleveland (CBS/Sony MLK39435), although he does include "Solveig's Song" from the Suite #2. In fact, Szell, while fully realizing Grieg's considerable lyricism, also makes you believe in Grieg the architect, contrary to the notion of the composer as an exotic subarctic bird, with the same level of compositional smarts. For this reason, I also regard Szell and Fleisher's account of the piano concerto above all others. Järvi's account is straight-ahead, which certainly works for Grieg's music. On the other hand, I miss the rapture of "Morning," the simple grief of "Ase's Death," and the mania of "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Despite a "Solveig's Song" which fails to appreciate the wonderful tune, the Suite #2 fares better with a dramatic "Abduction of the Bride" and "Peer Gynt's Homecoming" and a delightful "Arabian Dance" (which comes off like a French bransle injected with pure Scandinavia).

DG's sound seems a bit under-recorded to me. I had to crank up the volume just to get my normal listening level. Also, the sound seems tinny, unhappily recalling what you used to get from your kiddie Victrola. I think that just about sinks this set.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz