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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa