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.