GRIEG: Orchestrated Piano Pieces (Bjarte Engeset/ Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Tim Handley) (Naxos: 8.557854)
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Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Vol. 2: Orchestrated Piano Pieces
Edvard Grieg often said that he was aware of limitations in his German education, and that he needed stimulus from other musical cultures. He mentioned the Italian light, the richness of Russian colour, and not least the clarity and lightness of France. In an article in the German periodical Signale he discussed the 'heavy and philosophical' aspects of German culture, and concluded that they were not enough for Norwegians, who also love clarity and brevity.
The elements in Grieg's music which point forward towards, for example, impressionism and barbarism/primitivism are particularly unsuited to Germanic orchestral garb. It is worth noting that it was not the diffuse sonorities of French music that he mentioned, but rather its 'clarity': ' Esprit' rather than ' Geist'.
In my opinion Grieg can certainly be called a good orchestrator, apart from some variable early efforts. He continually changed and improved many of the orchestral versions he made, as a result of years of practical experience on the conductor's podium. He also had an individual way of using the orchestra, which usually suits the musical material very well. But he had something of an inferiority complex when it came to instrumentation. This is perhaps one reason why it is often others who have orchestrated some of the most 'orchestral' of his piano works.
Slåtter - Suite for Orchestra, Op. 72
(Orchestration: Øistein Sommerfeldt)
"How easy it is to stifle their fragrance!" (E. Grieg on Slåtter )
The folk-fiddler Knut Dahle (1834-1921) from the Telemark region of southern Norway wrote to Grieg six times from 1888 onwards, begging him to transcribe important slåtter (folk-fiddle dance melodies) from his repertoire. Grieg thought they should be 'notated by a violin player [...] for the sake of the bowings, tunings, fingerings and tone colours' and he got Johan Halvorsen to do the job in 1901.
In the piano work Slåtter, Op. 72 (1903), Grieg varied the tunes on many levels, with rich harmonies, sometimes extremely chromatic. Subtle pedal effects often create a personal 'piano flavour', inspired by, for example, the ring of the 'sympathetic' under-strings of the Hardanger fiddle. Grieg's imagination and creativity are obvious, even if he was striving for simplicity and clarity. Here the aesthetic of folk music influenced Grieg's own aesthetic. The progressive facets of his musical language were noted by, among others, the French musicians 'the Apaches' (including Ravel), who, according to Johan Halvorsen, were enthusiastic about 'the new Grieg'.
What Grieg was really doing was building bridges between folk-music and art music, an idea that has often been important in Norway, with its democratic and inclusive tradition. It should also be said, however, that there are many elements of variation and complexity in the original folk-dances that Grieg chose not to adopt: microtones, irregular rhythms (especially in the triple-time springar dances), ornaments, trills, details of accentuation and phrasing. Indeed the Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt (1908-81) said in a review that the Op. 72 Slåtter are almost worthless, almost a trivialisation of folk music, although in their time they pointed forward towards an aesthetic not unlike the one Tveitt himself evolved.
No. 8: Wedding March, after Myllarguten [ Note 1]
According to a famous fiddler from Telemark, Myllarguten composed this march when his sweetheart Kari jilted him to marry someone else.
So Myllarguten's Wedding March in a bright A major has a melancholy subtext; and, knowing that, it is perhaps possible to hear an unhappy love hidden underneath the lightness. The same short motif incessantly comes back, incessantly embellished.
No. 4: Halling [ Note 2] from The Fairy Hill
A man called Brunjuv Olson lost a bull. He searched for it on the fells for many days. So he grew exhausted and fell asleep, and dreamt that he heard a wondrous strange tune. Beyond a hill he saw a wonderfully pretty girl. [ Note 3] She said to him: 'You shall play like this on the fiddle, Brunjuv Olson, when you get home to your wife and children - and on the other side of the mountain you'll find your ox. '
In this Fairy Hill Tune Grieg develops the original slått with a harmonically and melodically rich middle section, which uses material from the tune at half speed.
No. 2: Jon Vestafe's Springar
The story goes that Jon Vestafe, one Autumn night, had killed his sweetheart (because she had been unfaithful). He was imprisoned, and made up this 'springar' in prison. When he was brought to trial, he was allowed to play it for the judges. After the trial he was set free - so what witchcraft there must be in this tune!
The original slått in this case actually has an upbeat: Halvorsen's faulty notation is clearly reinforced in Grieg's version. A Telemark fiddler would also play this springar with beats of unequal lengths.
The composer Øistein Sommerfeldt (1919-94) was a huge fan of Grieg. He wrote in his diary: 'What would we have been as a musical nation without Grieg. Nothing! Absolutely nothing!'
From 1955 he worked for many years on orchestrations of Slåtter from Grieg's Op. 72. In this music he found 'A power which also drew stimuli from spheres very far from the "well-behaved" heavenly ones.' It was in Paris that Sommerfeldt had the idea of orchestrating the pieces, and he worked on them during several periods of study with Nadia Boulanger. So there was also a French musical influence in these Grieg orchestrations. Sommerfeldt collected them into three suites which he constantly revised, becoming more and more self-critical. In 1974 he asked Kristian Lange, the Head of Music at Norwegian Radio, to throw away all the scores and parts, and in 1977 a new short suite appeared, which is the one on this CD.
For this recording we have to a great extent followed Sommerfeldt's bowings, phrasing and articulation, although it was tempting, especially in the Fairy Hill Tune, to use more recent notations of slåtter by Sven Nyhus as a starting-point. We played with almost no vibrato, and tried to find a style and aesthetic which was different from that of the younger Grieg. But these orchestrations are the product of multiple factors: from folk tradition through Knut Dahle and Johan Halvorsen to Edvard Grieg, and on to Øistein Sommerfeldt - a lot of Norwegian music history, and many different styles.
Norwegian Dances Op. 35
(Orchestration: Hans Sitt)
Throughout his life Grieg loved playing piano duets. This enthusiasm is surely the basis of his command of the form in the four Norwegian Dances, Op. 35, composed during a summer stay in 1881 at the village of Lofthus, on the S&osl