Symphony in C minor
Old Norwegian Romance with Variations, Op.51
Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op.56 – Three Orchestral Pieces
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in the Concert Hall of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra – between 22-24 August 2005 (Symphony) and 10-13 April 2006
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.557991
Duration: 72 minutes
For many years, biographies of Grieg left the reader with the ‘loose end’ that the composer’s only Symphony languished in a library in Bergen and Grieg’s hand-written message on the cover: “Must never be performed”. This was taken as sacrosanct for 113 years. Scholars could study it but never copy it. After much discussion and negotiation it was performed in Bergen on 30 May 1981 (following one a year earlier in Russia) in a televised concert (presumably conducted by Karsten Andersen who then recorded it for Decca). Grieg is thought to have written his summons in 1867 even though performances of individual movements had taken place during the 1860s. This complicated history is explained in great detail in an excellent and very informative essay provided for this disc’s booklet by the conductor.
The Symphony was composed when Grieg was 20 and the melodies of the second and third movements have been known in subsequent years in an arrangement for piano duet known as Two Symphonic Pieces (Opus 14). The Symphony itself certainly reflects the style of its period – those who appreciate Svendsen’s fine (and much underrated) symphonies should certainly warm to the Grieg. The two composers (compatriots and exact contemporaries) have in common some underlying Norwegian folk-rhythms and melodic turns of phrase but otherwise there is no strong similarity to other music of the period except that it clearly lies within the Romantic era.
It is good to hear Grieg here giving the lie to the thoughtless and frequent assertion that he is a ‘miniaturist’. True, in the first movement Grieg often chooses melodies of short duration but they are linked together skilfully in the context of a large scale. The opening Allegro molto is quite lengthy (here 13 minutes and including a repeat of the exposition) but by the 1860s the time had long passed since composers used only two melodies for development in a symphonic movement. Subtle switches between major and minor – and, perhaps, the addition of an extra theme – creates drama: Classical symphonies had a specific development section whereas Grieg’s symphony develops most of the time.
In terms of interpretation, Bjarte Engeset never lets the tempo linger – continuity is the strength of his interpretation although only in the finale, marked Allegro molto vivace, does he use an especially fast speed. Flow rather than speed is the essence of Engeset’s view. The rich Adagio espressivo second movement is far less somnolent than on a rival version by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra under Terje Mikkelsen on the Simax label – a performance which elsewhere matches Engeset’s tempos with amazing exactness (the third movement to the very second). This ‘Intermezzo’ is probably the most ‘Norwegian’ of the four movements: a weighty, dancing sequence with a central section that does actually make reference to a known folk melody. The form of this movement is near enough ‘Scherzo and trio with coda’ as no matter.Engeset says that the finale “demands a virtuosically fast tempo” – and this certainly brings out the drama.
I strongly recommend this fine work. The recording is colourful and is set within a resonant acoustic. Balance is generally good but a wider dynamic range would have helped the dramatic moments.
The generally well-known Old Norwegian Romance with Variations, recorded eight months later at the same venue, has a touch less clarity – balance is still satisfactory but moments like the adventurous drum solo before the final section sounds colourful and suitably weighty yet there is not quite the precise definition that would have made it truly spectacular. This is an underrated work – probably deserving as much representation as the famous Brahms work on the St Anthony Chorale (Haydn) and Grieg’s orchestration is exceptionally imaginative.
The three-movement suite from “Sigurd Jorsalfar” is played in lyrical style. The best-known piece is the ‘Homage March’ and Engeset chooses to expand its rich long-limbed melodies and allow the fully scored passages of triumphalism to reach the ear without over-stressing their heroic qualities.
The performances of all the works seem entirely sympathetic. The Symphony is a coherent and richly melodic work that deserves to be far better known and this is the best version of the three that I have heard. The similarity of interpretation between this and the recording by Mikkelsen continues to surprise me but perhaps Grieg’s writing is so explicit that there is little room for a difference of opinion in how the music should be expressed.