Running a shade over eighty-three minutes, this is the longest compact disc I have encountered, so there are no complaints about value for money. It offers an excellent coupling, yet it is odd that the Bergen Philharmonic, of which Edvard Grieg himself was a conductor, did not give the premieres of either work.
The Peer Gynt music is played complete in the most recent (1993) edition of the final version of 1902. It was originally composed in 1885 for Ibsen’s greatest play at the author’s request. As a totality, the range of music Grieg supplied goes a long way to making us realise that he was a more wide-ranging composer than many think, and it is refreshing to hear Grieg's evocative score in this way, especially in such a very good overall performance as this.
Not that each of the sixteen movements is fully successful in this recording. The Prelude to Act One ‘At the Wedding’ opens in very lively fashion. Here is Peer Gynt the rumbustious young man, but the contrasts are too vividly drawn, the tempos ultimately inorganic, to make complete sense of Grieg’s characterisation. The unique sounds of a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle add indigenous colour in a way unmatched in any previous recording of Peer Gynt I have heard.
So it is throughout the entire score, with solo and choral singing of consistent quality. The three sopranos are excellent individually, and blend splendidly. Johannes Weisser is a spontaneous Peer Gynt of much character; in ‘Serenade’ he is outstanding. It is also good to hear the choral interjections in the closing bars of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. ‘The Death of Åse’ is very beautifully played by the Bergen strings, but Edward Gardner’s basic tempo may be a shade too fast – there is a lack of expressive contrast in the repetition of the phrases, which come across as matter-of-fact, and I miss the gentlest of Beecham’s subtleties. In ‘Morning Mood’ the playing is excellent, Ann-Helen Moen sings ‘Solveig’s Song’ and ‘Cradle Song’ with fine artistry, and the choirs in the rarely-heard and beautiful ‘Whitsun Hymn’ and elsewhere are also outstanding.
Overall, whilst not entirely replacing versions by Beecham and Øivin Fjeldstad, Gardner must be considered a first choice for the complete Peer Gynt score, and in addition there is Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in the Piano Concerto. He plays with virtuosity and sensitivity but only truly gets to the heart of this work in the slow movement, which is very responsive and very moving. In the outer movements, Bavouzet is less convincing. His playing is hard to reject yet it somehow never quite comes to life or succeeds in maintaining genuine organic momentum, despite moments of distinction.
The booklet note by Erling Dahl is nowhere near as informative as might be expected. The superficial nature does not sit well alongside the generally fine music-making the words accompany. Texts and translations are included for the sung parts of the Peer Gynt score and the recorded sound is excellent.