Has all of the Songs, but Piano works poorly played
Paul E. Hartman | Los Angeles | 09/06/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This 21 CD Grieg Edition on Brilliant Classics, specially prepared for the Grieg Centenary, is an analog to the 40 CD Brilliant Classic boxed sets of other composers; it's just that Grieg didn't write enough music to fill 40 CDs, it would appear!
The set presents all of the songs on 7 CDs, conveyed by 3 soloists, soprano Marianne Hirsti--adequate; tenor Kjell Magnus Sandve---good; and baritone Knut Skram---exceptional; the piano accompaniments are adequately performed, unobtrusive but also not particularly inspired, either. At least the choice of 3 singers essaying the songs offers an alternative to the BIS series, on 5 CDs so far, with Monica Groop as the sole voice (at least in 3 of the CDs).
The piano music is also presented on 7 CDs, covering all of the major works, omitting many of the fragments, and endless Norwegian Melodies and piano transcriptions of all of the orchestral works that are offered in the 14 CD complete Grieg piano music on Naxos. However, the pianist on the Naxos set (who also performs some of the works on the harmonium and organ), Einar Steen-Nokleberg, is an infinitely greater musician than the pianist here, Hakon Austbo. Just listen to any of the more melancholy, lyrical and sentimental Lyric Pieces; aside from an often abrasive piano tone, Hakon Austbo seems incapable of conveying real lyricism. (I am surprised that he can show his face in public, after recording such an unmusical, rushed, insensitive performance of the beloved Nocturne, as presented here.) So don't give away your Naxos 14 CD complete Grieg piano music set!
The set presents all of the Chamber Music, with the unfinished second String Quartet presented in the full 4 movement completion by Julius Rontgen, making this more desirable than the BIS CD; it also includes the piano trio movement.
The set skimps in the choral music (omitting all but one of the Op. 30 choral settings), and also the orchestral music (omitting the Symphony, a number of the smaller lyric works for orchestra, several obscure tone poems, melodramas, as well as the complete Peer Gynt incidental music). The Piano Concerto performance is the lethargic Bolet/Chailly, Bolet demonstrating beautiful tone throughout, but not a whiff of passion or drama, every emotion seemingly restrained to the point of inertia in the finale, with the first movement cadenza particularly lacking in grandeur, brilliance and sheer drama. You will need to keep your DG Complete Grieg orchestral music boxed 6 CD set, I fear, as many of the lesser known works, including melodramas and tone poems, are included there but not here, as well as the complete Peer Gynt (all conducted on the DG set by Neeme Jarvi; and the piano concerto in THAT set is surprisingly well played, by Lilya Zilberstein). All that is offered here from Peer Gynt are the two familiar suites, conducted by Ermler, adequate but nothing special.
Brilliant Classics might have been cleverer to aim for completeness, as with just a half dozen or so more CDs that might have been possible here. As it is, the main glories of this boxed set are the complete songs, and the chamber music. If these aren't what you are looking for in your Grieg collection, then avoid this 21 CD set. You will be better served elsewhere in terms of the piano music, orchestral music, and (on Simax)with the choral music."
Surprisingly good and excellent value
Michael Schell | www.schellsburg.com | 09/19/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Released to coincide with centenary of Grieg's death, this inexpensive set continues in the tradition of Brilliant's not-quite-complete Editions. It's closer in scope to their Masterworks series, or the Berlioz and Shostakovich sets than it is to the huge and complete Bach, Mozart and Beethoven collections. I'm puzzled by the lackluster reception this Grieg set has gotten among online reviewers, since there's quite a bit of attractive music here, much of which gets little exposure outside Scandinavia.
The 21 CDs divide neatly into three groups of seven, with the first one devoted to Grieg's orchestral and chamber music. Sigurd Jorsalfar, the Lyric Suite and the Symphonic Dances are handled by Yondani Butt and the Royal Philharmonic. There's nothing special there: the performances are adequate, the tempos often unusually slow. The Peer Gynt suites fare better. It's unfortunate that only the suites are provided, and not more extensive selections from the incidental music, such as the fiddle tunes or the prelude to the first act.
The Piano Concerto is performed by Jorge Bolet with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra. Their tempos in the outer movements are notably slower than most performers' (and Grieg's metronome markings). But this is one of those performances where hearing an old warhorse at a slower-than-usual tempo is revelatory rather than tiresome. Bolet gives us an opportunity to pick out some often-missed details in the orchestral accompaniment and piano figuration. And that's not something that often happens with Grieg, who rarely reveals much beyond a couple casual hearings with score in hand. The only thing I regret about this performance is that the more relaxed tempos reveal some inaccuracies in the orchestra. For example, there are some pretty sloppy off-beats in the strings' accompaniment to the woodwind's initial statement of the first movement's main theme (without being there, I can't tell if this is the fault of the players or the conductor). But in the succeeding animato passage that closes the first theme group, the piano plays a dotted-note figure where Grieg has made a distinction between grace notes and the shortest of the measured notes (32nd notes). In most recordings, the music goes by so fast that you'll never notice the difference, but not here. Likewise, at the start of the finale, I hadn't previously noticed the horn/bassoon punctuation of the main theme, and how the bassoon's descending half-step becomes augmented on repeat.
Disks 5 through 7 cover the chamber music. You get both string quartets (with Röntgen's completion of the Second), the three violin sonatas, the cello sonata, and a couple of other scraps.
I don't share the negative impression some have towards the recordings of the piano pieces. They're played by Håkon Austbø, a Norwegian pianist best known for his interpretations of Scriabin and Messiaen. It's Austbø who is featured in Brilliant Classics' Brahms Edition playing that composer's most important piano works. Although I often find his tempos rushed here, the performances are certainly acceptable, and are unlikely to disappoint you if they're the only ones you have of Grieg's piano music. Disks 8 through 14 cover this repertory.
Then come the songs, across the final seven discs. I'm not generally a fan of the 19th Century lieder genre: overproduced voices drifting toward just intonation, accompanied by a piano entrenched in equal temperament, a combination that has never jibed for me. Nevertheless, this was an eye opening experience for me, since Grieg's songs are far less known in North American than those of his German speaking counterparts. Many of the songs are beautiful and carry over the piquant melancholy of the Lyric Pieces for piano. Listening through this set, in fact, made me realize how much of Grieg's music is in minor. Those long, dark, winters must have gotten to him! CD 17 is centered on the song cycle Haugtussa (the Mountain Maid), probably the most important collection of Grieg songs. There are some very beautiful specimens here, and soprano Marianne Hirsti genuinely captures the spirit and poignancy of these songs about pastoral life and unrequited love. Some notorious Brilliant Classics engineering problems present on this CD. In my copy, there is distortion between 2:18 to 2:21 in the song Sighs, for example.
Other highlights among the songs include the Op. 5 Melodies of the Heart, Clara's Song (EG 124), which anticipates Sibelius's Valse Triese. Rodulf Jansen's piano playing is a highlight throughout, emphasizing the delicacy of the Cradlesong, the dramatics of the Op. 49 settings, then the humor in the Op. 60 Krag settings. The singers are somewhat uneven, with Hirsti and baritone Knut Skram sounding the most stabile of the lot to me. But they all appear to be native Norwegian speakers (the CDs were originally released on the Norwegian Victoria label).
Some perfunctory liner notes are supplied in a booklet. Unfortunately there are no song lyrics or translations provided. This is a real shame, since these are much harder to find on the Web than translations of, say, Schubert lieder. The Lied and Art Song Texts Page has many of the Norwegian texts, but I don't know that language (as close to English as it sounds), and the generic Web translators generally don't support it either. I would love some of these songs sung in English, and I think my young daughters would enjoy many of the more playful ones, such as the Kidlings' Dance from Haugtussa, if they could understand the words.
CD sleeves are cardboard, but are made of a flimsier kind of recycled cardboard than those found in the most of Brilliant Classics' other boxed sets.
The bottom line? Well, the orchestra recordings are fine if you're after a bargain survey of Grieg's most important orchestral works, and they generally fare better than most such offerings in Brilliant Classic box sets like this. The piano music and chamber music are good, if not top notch. The song recordings are interesting and often compelling if you like lieder, and possibly even if you don't. Although Grieg's songs are simple strophic affairs, they're often very beautiful and not as well known (and overplayed) as their German language counterparts. Basically they're like the Lyric Pieces, but with a voice on the top melody line. Honestly, it was the seven CDs devoted to the songs that were the most revelatory for me, despite the occasional engineering glitch. If you can obtain this set at an inexpensive price (as usual, I got mine from Amazon's French site where it was much cheaper) then it represents great value."