Saturday, August 25, 2012

How Does One Evaluate Imagination? The Masterpieces Collection: Grieg Volume 4!

The Good: Some intriguing and operatic melodies, Some recognizable tracks
The Bad: Some wander a bit far for my tastes.
The Basics: Between highly imaginative and narcoleptic tracks, this Grieg album ultimately has just enough to keep a listener listening.

I have a love-hate relationship with reviewing Classical music compact discs. This is not to say that I have a love-hate relationship with Classical music, because I have a great appreciation for Classical music. In fact, I was raised on a pretty steady diet of Classical music and early folk-rock music. Those two sensibilities have shaped much of my musical appreciation as I have grown into adulthood.

My fundamental problem with reviewing Classical music is that my folk-rock background raised me to have a keen appreciation of lyrics. What music says, the poems that interact with the instrumentals are of incredible import to me. I appreciate Classical music's lack of lyrics; I love that the imagination of the listener may roam free and unfettered when listening to compact discs featuring music of classical artists; but it is difficult to write about.

Equally important, my knowledge of Classical music is severely limited. It is limited to the extent that I do not know what is good. This is not to say that I do not know what I like, because I do. My problem is that with any given recording, I do not know - by standards of those "in the know" - if a specific recording is good. So, for example, while visiting my father for the first time in several years recently, I raided his collection of Classical music c.d.s. I was looking for Respigi (come back tomorrow, folks!) and I took some Grieg. Why? Because, as I arrogantly declared as I took The Masterpiece Collection Grieg, "I should know some Grieg!"

And, I discovered, I do. In fact, odds are you do, too. With thirteen tracks, clocking in at 60:59, The Masterpiece Collection Grieg features some prominent pieces by Edvard Grieg. Perhaps the most recognizable of these songs would be "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" and "Procession Of The Dwarves." On The Masterpiece Collection Grieg, Edvard Grieg's works are presented as big and sprawling and operatic; which is exactly what I like.

I will confess that in my layperson status in reviewing Classical music, I noticed no qualitative difference between the pieces, which were performed by five different orchestras and/or individuals.

The first track is the "Piano Concerto In A Minor, Op. 16," subtitled "Allegro Molto Moderato." It is performed by Dubravka Tomsic on the piano. Tomsic is accompanied by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Ljubljana, which was conducted by Anton Nanut. "Allegro Molto Moderato" opens with the piano, which starts by doing a number of listings up and down the scales before settling into a melody. The orchestra takes over and over the course of the thirteen minute track, the heavy strings and tympanies of the orchestra recreate the piano's melody as a pounding, operatic bellow. The orchestra and the piano swap off, with the piano standing like a lone voice before the mountain of string instruments. About midway through the song, the piano regains some control - after taking out the brief sound of flutes (I believe) - by establishing a new heroic melody, which the orchestra never quite co-opts. Instead, the orchestra's cellos and larger stringed instruments brood and the piano becomes more melancholy, returning to softer progressions of notes.

This piece evokes the imagery of a storm and then the dew after the storm. In the latter half of the piece, the orchestra begins to chase the piano up the scale like the wind blowing cleanly through the day after clouds have gone. But then, the orchestra returns to its domineering version of the original theme, insinuating that there is still more darkness or storm over the horizon. It's an intriguing piece and the piano and orchestra play off one another fairly well, creating a back and forth that is pleasant and allows for multiple interpretations.

The second batch of tracks is from the "Peer Gynt Suite 1, Op. 46" and the movements include: "Morning Mood," "Aases Death," "Anitra's Dance" and "In The Hall Of The Mountain King." It is performed by the Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Peter Stern. "Morning Mood" is a recognizable tune that features woodwinds - light clarinets, flutes and oboes - playing off violins and other stringed instruments to create a soft melody that evokes images of daybreak. In fact, "Morning Mood" has been featured in movies and commercials for just that. For some reason, the melody evokes mental images of waking up on Easter morning. It is that kind of tune.

The song melds pretty seamlessly into "Aases Death," a string-driven operatic mourning song. The string section is soft and almost romantic, like death is a breeze or the ebbing of the tide. There are no significant crescendos in this piece, making it seem mostly peaceful and strangely wholesome. By contrast, "Anitra's Dance" then comes in like something of a non sequitor. It is upbeat and moves quickly. It is well named as it sounds like a dance with the intent being to make the listener more.

If "Anitra's Dance" is a non sequitor, "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" is an entirely different turn in and of itself. Starting quiet with the recognizable melody and beats of "do do do do do do, do do do, do do do, do do do do do do do, da do do do do!" with woodwinds and softer instrumentals, the melody is soon co-opted by the thundering strings and woodwinds, accented by cymbals crashing and tympanies. This is a very recognizable tune and it evokes a descent, a running, into the underworld. It has the feeling of caves and running through the dark with large, menacing creatures following! It has a very Wagner sense of operatics to it once the tempo gets going and the bigger strings get involved. Hearing this recording makes me think I have heard the piece performed where in the final - and loudest - section a brass section took over, but there is none here. Instead, the closest we get is the counterpoint from the bassoon. It's good enough, though and it is the stand out track on the album.

It is replaced by the soft strings of "Shepherd's Boy," the first movement of "Lyric Suite, Op. 54," which is performed by the Nurnberg Symphony Orchestra, with Erich Kloss as the conductor. It is a wandering, lighthearted piece played with stringed instruments that alternate between sweeping, long notes held by the violins and plucking that sounds like it is from harps. This is the first of four movements from the "Lyric Suite, Op. 54" included and the others are "Norwegian Country Dance," "Notturno," and the recognizable "Procession Of The Dwarfs."

After the faint and fairly unmemorable "Shepherd's Boy," "Norwegian Country Dance" sweeps in with little change in tempo or tenor, making for another soft, fairly slow dance that is primarily strings. "Notturno," then, seems strangely energetic as it takes over, sweeping in almost like a waltz, reaching crescendos with the strings like a night breeze blowing the day away. This piece grows and builds in volume and becomes something more substantial as it goes on, something the earlier two movements did not do.

"Notturno" softly segues into the recognizable "Procession Of The Dwarfs." After a faint entrance, "Procession Of The Dwarves" takes on a warlike anthem reminiscent of "In The Hall Of The Mountain King." The theme then collapses into lighter strings, which are almost pastoral, making one wonder if Grieg was either sick, indecisive or just liked jerking his audience around. The pastoral piece with the lilting strings and woodwinds descends back into a crescendo that is frenetic and almost angry sounding.

After the "Lyric Suite, Op. 54," comes "Lyric Pieces." These include "Butterfly Op. 43/1," "Erotic Op. 43/5," and "To The Spring Op. 43/6," all of which are played on piano by Marian Pivka. These three are melancholy piano pieces reminiscent of Chopin and until midway through "To The Spring" where they crescendo, they are utterly unmemorable. Honestly, I couldn't tell you how the "Erotic Op. 43/5" sounded because it breezed right by without leaving any impression. None whatsoever.

Fortunately, the album picked up my interest again with "Symphonic Dance, Op. 64/4," which was performed by the South German Philharmonic. Carlo Pantelli conducts this orchestra and while is starts out quiet, there is a series of quick string outbursts, like stabbing knives that instantly engage the listener. It quickly becomes more melodic with the lower toned instruments chiming in against the higher ones to create a sense of musical conflict that moves the piece along into something that is disturbing and is the sound of agitation. Listening to the first few minutes of this piece put my stomach in knots each time (it is over ten minutes long).

"Symphonic Dance, Op. 64/4" dies down in the middle, meandering some like the ebbing of a storm. I'm using a lot of storm analogies for this album of Grieg's works because many of the tracks have sudden musical outbursts, like the shifting of a storm or some sort of tidal wave at sea. This music is strangely divided between the sleepy and dull and the overbearing and dramatic. It is not music to dine to, but its best moments are good music to drive to.

Perhaps this is ideally music to create art to; painting where one wants to have moments of attention to detail, then dramatic sweeps of a paintbrush. Yeah, that would work with this as the soundtrack. But then, what do I know about Grieg?

The best track is "In The Hall Of The Mountain King," the low point is the "Butterfly Op. 43/1," which passed by without my even noticing, every one of the eight times I listened to this album!

For other instrument-driven music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Metamorphoseon - Ottorino Respighi
Appalachian Journey - Yo-Yo Ma
Mozart Musical Masterpieces - Classic Composers


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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