Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites (CD review)

Also, Lyric Pieces. Hakon Austbo, piano; Mark Ermler, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94402.

Casual fans of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) probably know him best for his Piano Concerto in A minor and his incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, although my guess is that insofar as the Gynt music goes, most listeners would be more acquainted with individual selections from the Peer Gynt concert suites than with the complete material. In any case, Maestro Mark Ermler offers up the two most familiar suites on this well-filled Brilliant Classics reissue.

The Suite No. 1, Op. 46 opens with “Morning Mood,” in which Ermler develops an expansively atmospheric tone but then sort of lets it fade into banality. His rendition of the “Death of Aase” hasn’t a lot of character, either; it simply sounds mournful and slow and little else. In the “Dance of Anitra” Ermler gets the rhythms flowing sweetly enough, yet they are not particularly memorable or enlivening. Then, in “The Hall of the Mountain King” we find Ermler communicating all the right notes but in a curiously underpowered manner. To put it another way, the conductor’s handling of the first suite is rather commonplace.

The Suite No. 2, Op. 55 begins with “Ingrid’s Lament,” and it comes off as one of the highlights of Ermler’s performance, with more color than most of the other selections. The “Arabian Dance,” like the “Mountain King,” should be among the most dramatic movements in the suites, yet Ermler plays it so safely it seems again only ordinary. However, in “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming” the conductor shows a power and urgency missing most elsewhere, helped by a more robust recording quality. Finally, in “Solveig’s Song” Ermler ends the way he began--with a banal interpretation--which at least gives the whole reading a degree of symmetry.

For more vital, characterful, moving recordings of the material, the reader might consider Sir Thomas Beecham’s EMI disc or Oivin Fjeldstad’s Decca disc of excerpts, Raymond Leppard’s Philips disc of suites, or Per Dreier’s Unicorn album containing most of the incidental music.

As a coupling, Brilliant Classics offer some of the Lyric Pieces Grieg wrote for the piano between 1867 and 1901. He actually composed sixty-six such pieces, all of them simple and brief, and the Norwegian pianist Hakon Austbo has selected fifteen of them for inclusion here. I enjoyed these items more than the Peer Gynt Suites because the pianist captures and conveys their essence purely and carefully, with a gentle touch throughout. The playfulness of the “March of the Dwarves” and the “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” and the beauty of the “Notturno” sound especially charming.

I believe it was Tring who originally recorded the Peer Gynt Suites at All Saints, Petersham, London, in 1993; and the Lyric Pieces come to us from Doopsgezinde Gemeente Deventer, the Netherlands, 2001. The orchestral sound in Gynt is nicely open, wide spread, and ultrasmooth. While there is not quite as much depth as I’d like to have heard nor as much sense of air, there is a fairly wide dynamic range and a good feeling of hall ambience. Impact and bass response are somewhat light, although “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming” comes off with authority. The piano sound in the Lyric Pieces is warm and resonant, not always perfectly defined but very comfortable.


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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