Thursday, October 11, 2012

Grieg's Orchestral works

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the sixteenth installment, I re-examine the orchestral works by Norway's most famous composer, Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907), representing one of my first introductions to classical music. By the way, the continuation of this series has been delayed considerably by our move and the time required to get my CD collection organized again.

Symphony in C minor (1864)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N Jarvi (DG, 1989, 32 min)
Not a symphony that is regularly scheduled, this work of a young Grieg, which he later condemned, even stating that it ‘must never be performed’. Granted, it is as derivative as you would expect of a 20-years old student, with Mendelssohn and Schumann coming to mind at times, and no Scandinavian feeling whatsoever. The opening is a nice blend of romantic melody snippets, but lacking a sense of direction to some extent. The adagio meanders along in a very charming way, followed by a rustic short intermezzo that shows the strongest influences of the earlier masters that I discussed before. The finale is lively and positive in all aspects. All in all, this is not a lost masterpiece, but it is a decent romantic symphony, that deserves to be far better known than it is.

In autumn op.11 (1865)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N Jarvi (DG, 1989, 11 min)
This concert overture first drew attention in a version for piano duet - but the orchestral version is actually the original one. Coming just one year after the discarded symphony, it is astonishing how much more this has the mark of Grieg. There is something undeniably Norwegian about the themes, right from the start. In the middle part, the thematic material is insufficient to keep the attention, but the boisterous finale makes up for it. Overall, too uneven for a recommendation though.

Piano concerto op.16 (1868)
My version: London Symphony Orchestra/Previn with Radu Lapu (Decca, 1973, 31 min)
Hard to believe that Grieg was only 24 when he wrote what has become one of the key romantic piano concertos - and that he never completed a second one. The opening timpani roll introduces the piano, with the orchestra soon following suit in one of his most appealing melodies, taken over by the piano. At the end of the first movement, the main theme returns in a slight variation, leading to an impressive cadenza and finale. The beautiful lyrical second movement recalls Mendelssohn's piano concertos without sounding derivative at all - and giving way without break to a joyous final movement, which gives both piano and orchestra the chance to shine - with a delightful pastoral interlude for the flute. All in all, a fantastic piece of music, one of my all-time favourite piano concertos.

Two elegiac pieces op.34 (1880)
My version: Capella Istropolitana/Leaper (Naxos, 1989, 7 min)
My version: Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Marriner (EMI, 1980, 9 min)
I will never forget that I played these pieces, Heart wounds and Last spring, when I got a call that my father had been taken to hospital with heart problems over 20 years ago. They started their life as piano pieces earlier the same year, but sound far better in the full string orchestra version - beautiful elegies indeed. One of his best works, totally belying the infamous Debussy quip about his music being pink bonbons stuffed with snow.

Norwegian dances op.35 (1881)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N Jarvi (DG, 1986, 17 min)
This set of four dances was originally for piano quatre-mains, with subsequent orchestration the same year by Hans Sitt, apparently endorsed by Grieg. The tense march-like first movement is followed by a short and graceful melodious allegretto which reminds me of Tchaikovsky, another boisterous march, and a finale, where optimism and melancholy alternate. This set of dances provides a tantalizing glimpse of what a complete ballet score by Grieg might have sounded like.

Holberg suite op.40 (1885)
My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1982, 20 min)
My version: Bournemouth Sinfonietta/Studt (Naxos, 1994, 19 min)
Colloquially known as the Holberg suite, the actual title is From Holberg's time: Suite in the olden style. Originally a piano composition, the orchestral version became the more famous one. It is a fascinating early example of neo-classicism: Grieg attempted to re-create in this work the musical time of  writer Ludvig Holberg (1864-1754). The Bachian suite consists of an opening prelude and four dances. The upbeat prelude is followed by a lovely stately sarabande with a haunting melody line, a graceful gavotte, a solemn air, and a lively rigaudon from the Provence. Playing this once more, I find myself humming along all the way. Perhaps just a tad less well-known than the two Peer Gynt suites, it is at an even higher artistic level for me.

Peer Gynt suite 1 op.46 (1888)
My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1983, 14 min)
Four orchestral excerpts from the music Grieg composed for Hendrik Ibsen's play. Morning mood may be an overplayed opener, frequently used out of context (e.g. yogurt commercials in Holland....), but it is still a beautiful scene-setter. Aase's death creates a suitably more somber mood, which is quickly dispelled by the joyous Anitra's dance. The first suite ends with the short boisterous In the hall of the mountain king, which is best known to the general public by its use in numerous cartoons. A perfect introduction to classical music, and a delight to come back to.

Two melodies op.53 (1891)
My version: Capella Istropolitana/Leaper (Naxos, 1989, 7 min)
Grieg's later orchestration of two songs from 1872 and 1880. The first one, Norwegian melody, is vintage Grieg, even more in the version for string orchestra than the original song. The second one, The first meeting, is a beautiful slow counterpart with an exquisite melody line. I consider this coupling to be among his better works.

Peer Gynt suite 2 op.55 (1891)
My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1983, 19 min)
Another four orchestral excerpts from the music Grieg composed for Hendrik Ibsen's play. The opener The abduction of the bride is a fascinating excerpt, demonstrating once more Grieg's considerable gift for great melodies. The Arabian dance that follows presents an interesting and effective change of mood. Peer Gynt's return home evokes the stormy seascape scene of the play quite effectively - like an opera interlude. The closing Solvejg's song is one of the most beautiful melodies ever to flow out of Grieg's pen - indeed one of the most beautiful in the history of music. The second suite may not contain as many "hits" as the first, but in the end I find it even more effective.

Sigurd Jorsalfar suite op.22 (1872/1892)
My version: London Symphony Orchestra/Dreier (Unicorn, 1989, 18 min)
This suite was composed by Grieg from the 1872 incidental music for a play by Bjornson. The complete suite has nine parts, many of which include a choir and a vocal soloist. The usual version is a selection of three orchestral pieces, for practical reasons. The first of these is In the king's hall, with wind instruments against plucked strings creating the appropriate atmosphere. Borghild's dream is an intermezzo that alternates lyrical moments and an agitated mood. Trumpet fanfares intitiate the Homage march that concludes the shortened suite in a grand way. Good but not great is my opinion on this one.

Funeral March in memory of Rikard Nordraak (1866/1892)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N Jarvi (DG, 1989, 7 min)
Grieg composed this funeral march at the occasion of the untimely death of his friend Nordraak, the composer of the Norwegian national anthem. Originally a piano piece, Grieg completed a version for wind orchestra later in his life (there is also a full orchestral version by Halvorsen, which was played at Grieg's funeral). The work is suitably solemn, at times strangely reminiscent of Mahler, if still more conventional. A gloomy piece, but a great one.

Two Norwegian airs op.63 (1895)
My version: Capella Istropolitana/Leaper (Naxos, 1989, 12 min)
Unlike many other examples, this was initially composed for string orchestra and turned into a piano version later. In folk style is a slow and extended (8 minutes) piece, with an eerie high strings bridge that holds the piece together very well. Cattle call and peasant dance is initially far more subdued than the title would suggest, but still ends on a high note with swirling farm girls dancing to the tune of simulated Hardanger fiddles. This combination is another example of Grieg at his (almost) best.

Symphonic dances op.64 (1898)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N Jarvi (DG, 1986, 31 min)
The sheer length of this set of four dances sets it apart from most of Grieg's works. Its structure is symphonic in nature as well. All four are based on actual Norwegian dance tunes. The first is notable for the haunting secondary theme, contrasting with the rather simple main material that precedes and follows it. The second is simply beautiful in its gracious melody line, with a fine upbeat interlude. The scherzo character of the third dance fits the overall symphonic set-up. The finale is a 12 minutes dance based on a love song and a wedding tune. This is the most symphonic in style of the four movements and as such provides an unbalance that was surely not intended. All in all, in spite of a lot of excellent moments, I find that this work confirms that Grieg's main strength was in the shorter works. It does not quite work as a symphony, and it gets too extended for a suite of dances.

Old Norwegian melody with variations op.51 (1890/1905)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N Jarvi (DG, 1989, 21 min)
This composition started as a piece for two pianos, the orchestration came 15 years later. After a short introduction, the theme is presented, a lovely expressive slow melody. Seventeen short variations follow in a great orchestral palette varying from waltz to march, from quiet to boisterous. These demonstrate once more that Grieg's forte was in the shorter pieces rather than in the extended compositions: most of these variations last less than 2 minutes each. A lovely piece overall.

Lyric suite op.54 (1891/1905)
My version: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/N Jarvi (DG, 1986, 19 min)
The history of this work is unique in Grieg's repertoire. The five pieces put together here started as a set of six lyric pieces for piano. Rather than orchestrating them himself, Anton Seidl, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, orchestrated four of them for his orchestra to play in 1894. He gave the work the title of Norwegian Suite. Grieg was not satisfied with the results and orchestrated five of the six pieces himself, later dropping one of them for the definitive suite. The opener Shepherd boy is an expressive slow piece that evokes the soft and rough aspects of the Norwegian landscape. Norwegian March is far more subtle than most of this type, and the beautiful melodic Notturno would not have been out of place in a Dvorak composition. The finale is vintage Grieg, a grotesque March of the dwarfs, with a beautiful pastoral interlude. In my opinion, this varied suite is one of the best Grieg compositions.

Bonus works:

Cello concerto op.36a (1883/2001)
My version: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Handley with Raphael Wallfisch (ASV, 2001, 29 min)
This curiosity is an orchestration of Grieg's cello sonata, by Joseph Horovitz and Benjamin Wallfisch. It is well-crafted and definitely worth listening to, especially the first two movements. With good romantic cello concertos being rare, it might even be considered a welcome addition to the oeuvre. I still prefer the intimacy of the original though.

Eight songs for cello and orchestra (1865-1891/2001)
My version: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Handley with Raphael Wallfisch (ASV, 2001, 33 min)
The CD coupling of the cello concerto, eight famous Grieg songs (from Jeg elsger dig to Solveig's song) arranged for cello and orchestra by Benjamin Wallfisch (six) and Michael Freyhan (two). Especially the two elegiac melodies come off splendidly in this version - not surprising given the general character of the cello. Each one of these eight transcriptions would make a nice and surprising encore for a concert, but in all cases, I prefer the original versions or Grieg's own orchestrations.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: None
Essential: Holberg suite; Lyric suite; Peer Gynt suites 1 and 2; Piano concerto; Two elegiac pieces
Important: Funeral March in memory of Rikard Nordraak; Norwegian dances; Old Norwegian melody with variations; Two melodies op.53; Two Norwegian airs op.63
Good to have: Sigurd Jorsalfar suite; Symphonic dances; Symphony; Cello concerto (bonus)
Not required: In autumn; Eight songs for cello and orchestra (bonus)
Avoid: None