GRIEG Symphonic Dances, op. 64. Elegiac Melodies, op. 34. Norwegian Dances, op. 35. Holberg Suite, op. 40 • Paavo Järvi, cond; Estonian Natl SO • VIRGIN 44722 (79:40)
“Halfway between the lyricism of Liszt and the impressionism of Debussy” is how note author PhilippeRead more Mougeot puts it. My take on it may come down to essentially the same thing, but stated somewhat differently. Grieg is a bit of a tough nut to crack. His music has unquestionable appeal and obvious staying power; one need only look to the unflagging popularity of the Piano Concerto and the countless orchestral suites drawn from Peer Gynt to underscore the point. Yet, listening to this program, I find myself wondering, “Should Grieg be counted among the big-league players of the 19th century, or was he a minor-league pinch hitter?”
The music has its charms to be sure, but when it’s over what does one take away from it? The melodies are memorable, yet they have a whiff of the salon about them—lightweight and sentimental. Dramatically heightened passages arrive suddenly and subside as quickly, almost always in response to a literary subtext instead of in furtherance of a developmental process or structural unity. The result is music of great surface beauty, but episodic and often without a great deal of formal cohesion. One might say Grieg wrote music that is terribly pretty but, with the possible exception of Peer Gynt, probably not terribly important. One might say that, but as Mougeot suggests, Grieg’s unique contribution may not be his orchestral scores, which number no more than about 15, but his 150 songs that “embody the Norwegian soul” and his many solo piano pieces that evoke Nordic forests and fjords.
The CD at hand contains a lovely program that ambles affably through familiar territory, though I have to admit that Grieg fatigue set in about half way, and I wasn’t able to make it through the whole disc in one sitting. Neither the performances nor the recording are at fault. Järvi himself, I believe, recognizes the inherent lack of contrast in the succession of these pieces, and tries to inject some interest into the proceedings by mixing things up a bit: the ordering of items on the disc does not exactly follow the above headnote. The two op. 34 numbers that comprise the Elegiac Melodies (“Heart’s Wounds” and “The Last Spring”) are separated, the first preceding the Norwegian Dances, the second, following them.
In its surpassing beauty of melody and richness of texture, the Holberg Suite, ironically it turns out, is the least Norwegian of Grieg’s scores. Commissioned by the city of Bergen to commemorate Ludwig Holberg, a 17th-century philosopher, playwright, and native Bergen son, the piece Grieg composed is a neo-Baroquish suite that evokes the spirit, if not the letter, of Couperin and Rameau. One needn’t be a musical anthropologist to hear in the Holberg Suite the direct lineage to future works such as Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.
As stated above, this is a lovely program of Grieg chestnuts roasted many times over in comparable collections. This one is as fine as any, nicely executed by the Estonian forces, and well recorded. Recommended.