GRIEG: Cello Sonata, Op. 36 / Piano Sonata, Op. 7 (Arne Akselberg/ Havard Gimse/ Oystein Birkeland) (Naxos: 8.550878)
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Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907)
Piano Sonata, Op. 7
Intermezzo in A Minor for Cello and Piano
Cello Sonata, Op. 36
Edvard Grieg, arguably the most popular composer ever to emerge from the Scandinavian peninsula, was born in Bergen, Norway, in 1843. His father was a rich merchant of Scottish descent, his mother a gifted poet and musician, who was principally responsible for recognising young Edvard's talent, and began giving him piano lessons when he was six years old. His progress was fairly spectacular, but more importantly he already showed a greater interest in experimenting with his own ideas than playing the music of others.
Edvard was a caring and sensitive child and, as is so often the case with the artistically prone, he endured a perfectly miserable schooling, being endlessly teased and derided for his interest in music. When he was fifteen, however, he was lucky enough to be granted an audience with the travelling violin virtuoso, Ole Bull, who was so impressed that he arranged for Grieg's transfer to the Leipzig Conservatory forthwith. This turned out to be something of a mixed blessing, for while Grieg was intuitively a child of the Romantic era, the tuition he received was severely traditional, based ostensibly on the classics of Bach and Mozart. He left the Conservatory claiming that he was as stupid as when he entered it.
In 1862 Grieg returned briefly to Norway, before making for the Scandinavian cultural capital, Copenhagen. In 1864 he met Rikard Nordraak, whose healthy obsession in the sagas, fjords and music of the homeland inspired Grieg to believe that a form of national music was also possible. Fired with renewed enthusiasm to compose, he set off for. Southern Europe to broaden his musical horizons. Returning in 1866, he gave a concert of his own music, including some piano miniatures, Hans Christian Andersen song settings and the First Violin Sonata, which once and for all established his reputation in his own country. In 1867 he married Nina Hagerup, and the following year their daughter Alexandra was born, inspiring Grieg to compose his first and most popular masterpiece, the A minor Piano Concerto.
A meeting with Franz Liszt in Rome in the early 1870s, during which Liszt sight-read the Violin Sonata and the Piano Concerto with great approval, was of crucial importance to Grieg's sense of evolving destiny. Returning to Norway he was contacted by the great playwright Henrik Ibsen to compose some incidental music to his play, Peer Gynt. The resulting set of inspired miniatures has maintained an honoured place in the orchestral repertoire ever since.
The 1880s and 90s represented a period of consolidation and increasing international recognition for Grieg. In 1885 he took up residence in Troldhaugen where he was to stay for the next twenty years, and subsequently developed a yearly blueprint which he would maintain right through the following decade: the spring and early summer were spent composing, the late summer going for long walks and touring the homeland, and the autumn and winter touring Europe. Meanwhile, honours were heaped upon the composer from learned establishments throughout Europe.
By the beginning of the following century, however, Grieg's less than robust health was causing unusual concern. He ill-advisedly continued touring, visiting places as far afield as Warsaw and Prague. By the summer of 1906, the end was already in sight; he penned his final composition (the Four Psalms) and then left for the comparative warmth of a hotel in Christiana. Incredibly, with his condition considerably worsened, the following year he was on the verge of making a journey to Britain to make an appearance at the Leeds Festival, when he was struck down by a massive heart attack; he died in hospital, shortly after arrival. Grieg was mourned as a national hero, and his ashes are still contained in a concrete recess cut into the rocky slopes overlooking his beloved home in Troldhaugen.
Grieg's only piano sonata, the Sonata in E minor, Opus 7, is a comparatively early work, dating from the highly productive summer of 1865, shortly after his first encounter with Rikard Nordraak. He retained great affection for the work; as late as the summer of 1904, he played the two inner movements alongside the popular Wedding Day at Troldhaugen to Kaiser Wilhelm II, much to the latter's great delight.
The Sonata's forthright and confident style confirms at once the incalculable effect of Grieg's encounter with Nordraak. Musically, the principal influences are without doubt the Danish composers Niels Gade (to whom the Sonata is dedicated) and J.P.E. Hartmann, from whom Edvard borrows freely in both the first movement and the Minuetto third. Although Grieg was never particularly at home when handling large-scale forms (he always remained a miniaturist at heart), the Piano Sonata undoubtedly represents his most consistently satisfying attempt at sonata structure. All four movements display a tautness and control often absent from Grieg's later work in this domain, the dreamy slow movement never being allowed to ramble unduly due to the unexpected employment of a series of dramatic interjections, and the rhythmic urgency of the finale ensuring that this unfairly neglected work is brought to a rousing and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Although Grieg composed three full-scale, accompanied sonatas for the violin, his output for cello and piano is limited to a pleasantly diverting, essentially salonesque, Intermezzo, thought to have been composed some time during the summer of 1867, and the Sonata, Opus 36, of 1882-3, which both share the Piano Concerto's key of A minor. The original manuscript of an unpublished Mazurka for cello and piano, known to have been performed at a concert in 1864, has yet to be discovered.
The Cello Sonata was composed as a result of a new lucrative arrangement made with Grieg's publishers in Leipzig (Peters), through his contact there, Max Abraham. The firm offered Grieg 3,000 Marks for a new piano concerto (never to emerge), piano pieces, a concert overture and a new sonata to be composed within the year. The Cello Sonata is dedicated to his cellist brother, John, although the first performance was given on 27th October 1883 in Leipzig by John's old professor Julius Klengel (composer of the sumptuous Hymnus for eight cellos) with Grieg himself at the piano. At one of his last public appearances in 1906, Grieg played the piece one final time with no less a figure than the emerging young star, Pablo Casals.
Composed in three movements, the Opus 36 Sonata shares the distinction of being one of the three most played Romantic sonatas for the instrument - the others being by Chopin and Rachmaninov. The first movement, explores an unusually wide expressive range for this particular composer, heightened by the unusual inclusion of a mini cadenza for the cellist. The slow movement pays an obvious debt to the Homage March from the incidental music to Sigurd Jorsalfar, and if the finale's all-pervading dance-rhythms have a tendency to outstay their welcome on occasion, the sense of sheer exhilaration and Grieg's unalloyed delight in his native music typically save the day.
The Norwegian cellist Øystein Birkeland was born in 1962 and had his musical training at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, where he graduated with the highest honours. He later studied with Heinrich Schiff in Basle and with William Pleeth and Ralph Kirshbaum in London. He is principal cellist of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and has appeared as soloist with this orchestra in tours ab