Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday Classics: More on Grieg -- advancing on "Peer Gynt," and covering the Piano Concerto


This 1941 Peer Gynt produced and directed by David Bradley, himself all of 21, is best known for presenting the 17-year-old Charlton Heston's film debut in the title role.

"Grieg's Peer Gynt music, certain movements of which frequently feature in popular programs, merits far more serious attention than is commonly paid to it.

"It owes its fame, of course, to its appealing melodic style, but its dramatic power and its often enigmatically demonic tone, especially in the Realm of the Trolls, are largely overlooked, as is Grieg's skillful musical characterization of the two outstanding symbolic female figures -- Solveig, who 'loves deeply and earnestly' and, by contrast, the seductive Anitra."

-- from conductor Kurt Masur's "Reflections on Peer Gynt," the introduction to his Philips recording of the "concert version" he and actor-director Friedhelm Eberle made, working from the pre-suite musical originals and incorporating portions of Ibsen's text

by Ken

Let's start with a graphic example. Last night we heard Grieg's two Peer Gynt Suites. Here again is one of the performances we heard of the concluding movement of the First Suite, "In the Hall of the Mountain King," by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra:

A fine, lusty performance, right? Great fun. But here's the music in context, the context being that young Peer Gynt, out to see the world, abandoning his mother, Ase, and his sweetheart, Solveig, back on the farm, has been fatally attracted to a Woman in Green who turns out to be the daughter of the aforementioned mountain king. The trolls at the command of the Dovre-Elder want to kill him. Let's hear the Eberle-Masur version. The Narrator (Eberle) explains: "Enticed by the Woman in Green, Peer Gynt reaches the royal hall of the Dovre-Elder. Great assembly of trolls, gnomes, and goblins."

A little different, eh?


In Friday night's preview we had a glimpse of the intimate world of Grieg as reflected in his ten books of Lyric Pieces. Then last night we had a snapshot view of his grandest dramatic project, the incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, in the form of the two suites he extracted from it. The idea was that today we would in some fashion work our way through the Peer Gynt music.

Well, I'm working on it. And while I'm working on it, I'm still trying to figure out how to do it. So I'm afraid our dramatic reenactment of Peer Gynt will have to be pushed back to next week.

Meanwhile, I've already got the audio files, so let's hear a little more of the Peer Gynt music: the two songs written for the sweetheart Peer left behind when he abandoned his home, Solveig, who as Maestro Masur notes above "loves deeply and earnestly." We actually heard "Solveig's Song" last night sung by Eileen Farrell, in our "composite" performance -- with vocals -- of the Second Suite. Both it and the heartbreaking final "Cradle Song" are written considerately enough that they can make their effect with a less than top-notch singer. Of course that doesn't mean the possibilities are fully realized. Here they are sung by a soprano with one of the most sheerly beautiful voices born into the German repertory, Elisabeth Grümmer. The year is 1953, and she's at the peak of her vocal powers.

Solveig's Song
Winter may pass, spring fade,
summer may wither, the year blow away;
you will return to me, surely, you will be mine,
I have promised I shall wait faithfully for you.

God give you his aid if you still live under the sun.
God bless you if you are kneeling at his feet.

I will wait for you until you are near me,
and if you are waiting on high we shall meet there.

Solveig's Cradle Song
Sleep, dearest boy of mine!
I will rock my child and watch over him.
Quietly in my lap he has listened to my song,
he has played with me all his days.
He can gladly be at his mother's breast
all his days, God bless him dearly!
Gladly I let him sleep next to my heart
all his days; he is so weary now.

Elisabeth Grümmer, soprano; Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Hugo Diez, cond. EMI, recorded March 25, 1953


Arthur Rubinstein was 88 and approaching blindness when he made this video recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto, from which we hear the finale, with André Previn and the London Symphony, in April 1975. (The 1st movement begins here and concludes here; the slow movement is here. A genius commenter, whose mother must be very proud, comments on the unquestionably slow 1st movement: "I almost fell asleep.... it is way too slow!!! If he couldn't play it fast enough, he should not have played it!! Fucking old man!")

The idea was that I didn't know when we might get back to Grieg, so it seemed a shame not to hear the work by which he's probably most reperesented in performance these days, the Piano Concerto in A minor, made instantly memorable by the soloist's bold downward-hurtling introductory salvo. Yes, the Grieg Concerto owes a certain debt to Schumann's concerto in the same key, but neither pianists nor audiences would willingly give up the Grieg. Since this part of today's planned post is ready to roll, let's roll with it.

We're going to hear first the recording that the merely 74-year-old Arthur Rubinstein made with Alfred Wallenstein in 1961. On the original jacket front RCA tattooed this statement from the soloist:
"In its rare coincidence of sound, balance,and performance of conductor, orchestra and soloist, this is the most perfect recording I have made."
What I found interesting about this statement, beyond the sentiment expressed, is the signature, in which Rubinstein clearly spelled his first name "Arthur," though for decades it had appeared everywhere he played as "Artur." It turned out that he had always disliked the Germanized spelling -- even though the "h" of the Polish spelling isn't pronounced. Despite his clearly expressed preference, the "Artur" spelling continues to be widely used.

I might add that Rubinstein had reason to be pleased with this recording. It is indeed a remarkably beautiful performance (and recording), as I think you'll hear even in humble MP3 form.

GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

i. Allegro molto moderato

ii. Adagio

iii. Allegro moderato e marcato

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded March 10, 1961

Back in 1942, the Grieg Concerto had been the first work Rubinstein recorded with orchestra in the U.S. -- specifically the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Here it is in a decent but not great transfer (not the one from BMG's mammoth Rubinstein Collection):

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded March 6, 1942

In 1949 Rubinstein rerecorded the Grieg Concerto, with Antal Dorati conducting (this transfer is from BMG's Rubinstein Collection):

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Aug. 22, 1949


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