Prom 27: 9th August 2001 – Speaking in Ibsen

Grieg
Peer Gynt – complete incidental music
(sung and spoken in Norwegian with English narration)

Peer Gynt – Bo Skovhus (baritone)
Solveig – Barbara Bonney (soprano)
Anitra – Inge Kosmo (mezzo-soprano)
Åse – Wenche Foss (spoken)
Great Boyg/Button Moulder – Sverre Anker Ousdal (spoken)
Jane Mason – Woman in Green (dancer)
Herd Girls – Eleanor Meynell, Elisabeth Poole & Alison Smart
Thief – Simon Birchall
Receiver – Stuart MacIntyre

Simon Callow (narrator)
Joar Skorpen (Hardanger fiddle)
BBC Singers (Trolls, witches, etc)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Peer Gynt (pronounced “Pear Gunt”) made his triumphant debut at the Proms this week – complete. Whatever Neeme Järvi had – warned by his doctors to take it easy – seemed to be catching; the original narrator, Paul Scofield, was also resting on doctor’s orders. He sent his apologies, voiced by Nicholas Kenyon, and was replaced by Simon Callow, who is used to this sort of thing – he had introduced the Gothenburger’s Peer Gynt at its two Barbican outings in the early ‘90s. I understand he also had a hand in the narration, which was short, to the point, and helpful at setting Grieg’s music in context. As Callow pointed out, the performance would be given in the original Norwegian – except for his own narration, which would be spoken, he said, “in Ibsen…” before he corrected himself, “… in English.”Given the epic nature of Ibsen’s play – five long acts covering Gynt’s ramshackle career – and Grieg’s twenty-six items of incidental music (some merely a few bars at the end of a scene), being able to hear the work in a form easy assimilated is the perfect solution, especially when performed with as much verve and fun as here.

With only a few indigenous Norwegians to help us through – Joar Skorpen, Inge Kosmo, and two veteran actors, Sverre Anker Ousdal and 83-year-old Wenche Foss (bare-footed and as dotty as Maggie Smith) as Gynt’s mother, Åse – it was left to Bo Skovhus (Danish), Barbara Bonney (American), BBC Singers, Sweden’s national orchestra and an Austrian conductor to do the honours.

The full score of the work in the form Grieg had wanted was not unearthed until fifteen years ago. The indefatigable Neeme Järvi recorded it for DG and then scored great success by touring it. The wonder is how the familiar suites, full of Grieg’s finest music, distort his careful musical architecture, which in this performance was slightly marred by a continuing muddle over lighting – it became something of a joke that if Barbara Bonney was entering down the stalls-steps stage-right, the lights would go up the steps stage-left!

Solveig makes a very late entry, in Act Four, but such is the quality of Bonney’s still-pure voice and her effortless, simple delivery, that she eloquently personified the still-centre of Ibsen’s play. By contrast was boisterous Bo Skovhus, whose role as Gynt is all-spoken save for his one song attempting to woo the flirtatious Anitra (who is only interested in stealing Gynt’s riches, leaving him penniless to go home to Norway). The lucidity of the music was matched by the beautiful poetry of Ibsen’s verse, its particular eight-syllable lines – all credit to Skovhus for his fluency in it. All the characters were costumed and the use of stage areas and exits/entrances was smoothly effected (especially Anitra’s dance where she unveiled layers of her costume and deposited discarded items on the men of the BBC Singers). Radio 3 listeners would be unaware of Jane Mason’s sinewy choreography as the Mountain King’s daughter (the ‘Woman in Green’).

Special praise must be afforded Manfred Honeck – not for the first time stepping in to take over a Prom. His replacing of Mariss Jansons last year has led to a very close relationship with the Oslo Philharmonic; he is now Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has an inspirational grasp of Grieg’s score for Peer Gynt, which Järvi – despite his long association with the work – could hardly have bettered. The Gothenburg Symphony responded with fine brilliance in what they may consider their party-piece.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast, 9 January 2002

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