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Saluting Grieg, Norway's Master Miniaturist, at 150

July 18, 1993|HERBERT GLASS | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

This year's anniversary celebration of the birth of a composer does not involve one of music's big guns. Not even an underrated and underrepresented important one like 1992's honoree, Rossini.

Our 1993 man of the year is Edvard Grieg, who is barely taken seriously--or listened to by nominally serious people--except perhaps in Norway, where he was born 150 years ago. Which is a shame, for Grieg epitomizes the notion of "minor master."

He didn't much concern himself with knockout spectacles. And when he did, as in his single attempt at an opera, he gave up at the point where he realized that dramatic music, in the usual sense, was not his metier.

What Grieg did produce, and this is more than can be said for a good number of composers with larger and louder cheering sections, was a body of superbly crafted miniatures in which he shows himself an inspired melodist, with roots in Norwegian folk idiom and a restrained Wagnerism.

At the heart of his output are some 120 piano-accompanied songs--to Norwegian, Danish and German texts--a few of which he eventually orchestrated.

Many of the best of them are included in the immensely satisfying program (Deutsche Grammophon 437 521) presented by Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, including half a dozen supremely sophisticated settings of poems by Henrik Ibsen with, as counterbalance, the charmingly disingenuous, folksy "Haugtussa" (Mountain Maid) cycle.

Standing alone, because it is so popular that many listeners may be unaware of its source, is that most perfect gem, "Jeg elsker Dig" (I Love You), to a tiny, touching poem by Hans Christian Andersen. Then, too, there are examples of Grieg the passionate sensualist, in his setting of Goethe's "Zur Rosenzeit" and Bodenstedt's "Ein Traum."

Otter finds the appropriate vocal weight and color for each song. And one can only marvel at the manner in which she is able to make dramatic points with a subtle verbal inflection here, a gentle rubato there--matters in which her pianist, Bengt Forsberg, is an indispensable partner.

Instrumental analogs to Grieg's songs are his numerous "Lyric Pieces" for piano, a selection of which is played with optimum idiomatic identification and warmth of tone by Israela Margalit, who--like Otter--is able to zero in on the particular world of sound and emotion demanded by each of these delectable baubles (Koch Classics 7143).

Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who has made his international reputation with far more demonstrative repertory, has long been a dedicated Griegian, further evidence of which can be found in the program in which he leads the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (Chandos 9113).

At its heart are the four Symphonic Dances of Opus 64, rich in the gently sentimental turns of phrase that form the essence of his style.

Attractive, too, are half a dozen orchestral songs, sweetly sung by soprano Solveig Kringelborn (with a name like that, how can you not sing Grieg?) and a suite from the "Sigurd Jorsalfar" incidental music.

Grieg was less comfortable in larger forms, tending to flail about when attempting to make the big dramatic statement. Which isn't to say that one of his most representative works of this sort, the G-minor String Quartet, lacks interest.

Far from it, the composer's one completed quartet is a thriller: hardly a model of organization, but full of big tunes and rhythmic vitality, which one can savor in a keen-edged, driving interpretation by the Stockholm-based Kontra Quartet (BIS 543) along with the composer's two other attempts at quartet writing, a Schumannesque student work and a more substantial, folk-flavored effort dating from his maturity.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano (1883), also in G minor, likewise bites off more ideas than it can develop. Still, a few of its melodies are distinguished, and while its incessant air of high drama may be exhausting, the piece is seldom uninvolving.

The Sonata has been recorded by a first-rate Norwegian team, cellist Aage Kvalbein and pianist Reidun Askeland, in a program (Victoria 19071) that also includes a supple, affectionate reading of the familiar "Holberg" Suite from the youthful Trondheim Soloists ensemble, beside which the performance by the Gothenburg Symphony under Neeme Jarvi sounds labored and colorless (Deutsche Grammophon 437 520, with other Grieg works).

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