November 13, 2008


Grieg: Peer Gynt—complete incidental music; Before a Southern Convent; Bergliot. Soloists, Malmö Chamber Choir and Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Tchaikovsky: Hamlet—Overture and Incidental Music; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture—original 1869 version. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     Every classical-music lover knows a little bit of Edvard Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. Very few know more than a little. Ibsen’s play is a strange one, with a picaresque but far from admirable title character who uses and misuses people throughout, is victimized himself but learns little or nothing from his experiences, and eventually attains a level of peace in a manner related to a form of religion in which Ibsen did not believe. By turns almost realistic, wholly symbolic and surreal, Peer Gynt is as much an oddity and mystery now as it was when Ibsen wrote it in 1867 and Grieg created music for it in 1874-5. The suites drawn from the music do little justice to either Grieg or Ibsen, for all their charm; indeed, their charm is part of the problem, since neither Peer nor the play is particularly charming. By taking the music out of dramatic context, the suites are faithful to neither the playwright nor the composer. Bjarte Engeset, on the other hand, is faithful to both, even though he takes liberties with Grieg’s scoring and includes folk as well as classical musicians in his performing ensemble. Peer Gynt is, perhaps more than anything else, about Norway, and may inevitably be opaque to non-Norwegians (not to mention non-speakers of Norwegian). What Engeset does is present all Grieg’s music – more than an hour and a half of it – and snippets of the play’s dialogue as well (listeners must go online to get the text and translation, but that is a small inconvenience). This approach inevitably gives short shrift to parts of Ibsen’s play – especially the third of the five acts, for which Grieg wrote only 12 minutes of music – but it gives listeners a chance to hear Grieg’s pieces in much better context than any in which they are usually heard. The folk-music performers fit well with several of the themes of Peer Gynt, as do such additions as a children’s chorus and cowbells (in a scene where Grieg considered using them but did not). This is quite a wonderful performance, with drive and emotion and orchestral color galore, and if it does not remove many of the puzzling aspects of Peer Gynt, that is only because they are unremovable, so thoroughly are they woven into the play’s fabric.

     As bonuses on the second CD of this set are two Grieg works that are almost completely unknown outside Norway and are rarely performed even there. Before a Southern Convent (Foran Sydens Kloster) was originally to be a scene in a larger work, based on an epic poem by Björnstjerne Björnson and dealing with events of the 11th century. The work is the song of a chieftain’s daughter at the gate of a convent, where she has come to try to cope with feelings of guilt and despair over her attraction to the outlaw warrior-hero who killed her father. In form it is a series of questions by a nun to the woman seeking entrance; in emotional content it is effective and moving. Bergliot is a melodrama – spoken narration with music – and is based on another work by Björnson. The title character is a woman whose husband and son are lured into an ambush and murdered, after which she first demands vengeance and later comes to acceptance and resignation. The form of melodrama inevitably downplays the importance of a work’s musical content, but Bergliot does have some dramatic power (when followed with the text) and is an interesting work, if scarcely major Grieg.

     Nor is the incidental music to Hamlet major Tchaikovsky – but it is nevertheless worth hearing. Vladimir Jurowski and the Russian National Orchestra offer not the moderately well-known 1889 Fantasy Overture but a set of mostly short incidental pieces created for a performance of the play in 1891. There is actually a much-shortened version of the Fantasy Overture at the start, but it is followed by fanfares, trumpet flourishes, entr’actes and other pieces that are mostly of little consequence, although several of the entr’actes are lovely – including one that is an excerpt from the composer’s balletic Symphony No. 3. However, there are a few items that are really worth hearing, including a march for Ophelia’s funeral and three songs – two for Ophelia and one for a gravedigger. Tchaikovsky was not a particularly prolific composer, so it is especially interesting to discover that there are works by him with which most listeners will be wholly unfamiliar. The Hamlet incidental music certainly belongs in that category. And so does Romeo and Juliet – not the thrice-familiar 1880 version of the overture heard so often in concert halls and on recordings, but the original one from 1869. This was not well received at its 1870 premiere, and in retrospect – after knowing the 1880 version – it is easy to see why. Apparently it was easy enough even in 1870. The famous love theme is present, in fact appearing earlier than in the 1880 version, and there are some interesting touches (such as having the timpani play the “conflict” theme at one dramatic point), but the tightly knit sonata form of the 1880 version is nowhere to be found. The 1869 version is essentially a contrast between the love theme and a theme of conflict – effective enough in its way, but without the sweep and drama of the 1880 version. That one is in fact the third Romeo and Juliet, since Tchaikovsky revised the 1869 version in 1870, and the second version was initially performed in 1872. There are fewer differences between the second and third versions than between the first and second (the third version’s main change is a reworked ending), but it would be nice to hear the second version once in a while, too. The 1869 tone poem, even when played as well and enthusiastically as it is in the sonic splendor of the Jurowski SACD, seems mostly like a pale foreshadowing of the far better work that was to come a decade later.

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