Saturday, September 7, 2013

Return To Classical: Grieg By Handley, Fingerhut and The Ulster Orchestra Is Rich In Sound.

The Good: Good pairing of the orchestra and piano, Interesting songs
The Bad: Moments where it gets a bit too light
The Basics: A decent recording of some of Grieg's most recognizable works makes for a decent album, worth the attention of any Classical music fan.

I have been enjoying some new to me Classical albums of late and as a result, I find myself as darkness falls writing another review on an album of the music of Edvard Hagerup Grieg. Considering how I was not run out of town for my review of The Masterpiece Collection Grieg (reviewed here!) a while back, I feel a bit more confident today in reviewing Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites today.

With fifteen tracks spread over four pieces, clocking in at 78:15, Greer: Peer Gynt Suites is a collection of works by Edvard Grieg that showcases the abilities of conductor Vernon Handley. Handley, apparently, had quite the career with the Ulster Orchestra as conductor. Led by Richard Howart, the Ulster Orchestra here presents four works by Grieg opposite pianist Margaret Fingerhut.

The Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46. opens the album, with "Morning Mood," "Death Of Ase," "Anitra's Dance," and "In The Hall Of The Mountain King." These felt and sounded awfully familiar to me, probably because I had just listened to another recording of them on the other Grieg album yesterday. That said, the substantive difference in this four-movement suite only came in the final movement. "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" resonates on this album with a brass section, something the other album's orchestra did not have. This lends itself well to the track and made for a more rousing conclusion to the piece, which is one of my favorites.

The Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, Op. 55 continues the album with "The Abduction (Ingrid's Lament)." Here, Grieg gives great titles that reflect the tone of the song. The piece opens with the crashing of symbols and dramatic instrumentals that sound like an abrupt event like a kidnapping. What follows, then, is a quiet, meandering piece featuring violins and cellos and light woodwind that sound like a gentle fall. It is the sound of sadness, the music of loss and the movement is one of the more completely contemplative pieces until the middle where the orchestra throbs to life, keeping the same tune, but raising the volume. It's an intriguing sound, like grief made music.

Sadly, following the drama of "The Abduction," the piece descends into an utterly unmemorable "Arabian Dance," which is quieter and so ethereal that for the eight times I have listened to this album, it has passed me by without leaving an impression. "Peer Gynt's Homecoming (Evening Storm On The Coast)" continues the trend as the piano falls away to the quiet woodwinds and gently plucking strings. This has almost the effect of being a lullaby in its slow, melancholy wandering sound. If one were painting wide open skies, this would be the soundtrack to it. That is not to say it is poorly executed; it is such a short movement that it is hard to do it poorly. It is just quiet and peaceful, neglecting the abrupt and angry chords Grieg seems to like to throw at his listeners.

With "Solveig's Song," this trend continues and one has the impression that Solveig is not intended so much as a hero as a person on a journey. In fact, the way the strings and woodwinds progress down the scales, there are often moments in this piece where it seems like the musical protagonist is falling. These tend to be followed by faint crescendos, like the protagonist is struggling to get back up and it is one of the more interesting melodies on the album. "Solveig's Song" does not make use of the piano, giving the string section a chance to truly shine.

By contrast, the "Lyric Suite, Op. 54" begins with the much more dramatic "Shepherd's Boy." Almost immediately, the brass section bleats in, like harbingers calling out for a hero. The dramatic feel quickly descends into an upbeat melody wherein the brass and deeper woodwinds play off one another with a melody and countermelody that is almost like a multiple personality disorder. Grieg seems to be all about shaking things up between low and high and on "Shepherd's Boy," he illustrates that with high strings being interrupted by very bass woodwinds and brass.

This continues into the "Norwegian Rustic March," which, unlike what the title suggests, sounds more like a frolic than a march. It begins softly and continues with quiet, meandering strings strings that evoke the image of wandering lazily through a glade or over a series of grassy hills. It lacks genuine intensity usually associated with marching.

Similarly, "Notturno" starts as a murky, string-driven piece before erupting into an almost warlike outburst of deep woodwinds and brass. That sense of conflict, though is almost immediately quenched as the music develops with what sounds like a lone clarinet. After the almost dangerous intensity, the piece builds slowly and quietly with the lighter instruments into what could be a peaceful night expressed in terms of music.

The movement is capped off by "March Of The Dwarfs," which pits the deep brass against the rest of the orchestra for a rousing finish to the movement. The melody is powerful and moves and creates a meaningful finish to the suite. This is a recognizable piece: to the extent that I am fairly sure it was used on The Simpsons.

The Piano Concerto In A Minor, Op. 16 closes out the album. Starting with "Allegro Molto Moderato," the Concerto slowly develops as a pastoral piece that has the orchestra developing a melody, which the piano then co-opts. The piano begins to alter the initial theme, picking the piece up and interposing fast scales up and down the keyboard. This adds a sense of conflict to the song and rather intriguingly, the orchestra is submissive in this interpretation to the piano. The piano, by the end of the movement is the exclusive sound the listener hears and the overall feel of the song is of a musical David knocking out Goliath. The lone piano dominates and Fingerhut seems to have no trouble making her piano heard, up until the final notes when the strings and brass erupt to close off the song. The result is a piece that sounds somewhat melancholy and closes inspiring.

"Adagio" gives the orchestra more of a presence, but the light woodwinds and strings play it as quiet and meandering. Soon, though the brass and heavier strings are coming in with a faster melody that moves the piece forward. The piano enters while they are at their peak and the intriguing aspect of the piano in this piece is that it diminishes, easing the melody out, like a hero dying.

The listener is then jolted with the beginning of "Allegro Moderato Molto e Marcato," which comes in with dramatic poundings of the larger strings. The piano and violins then chase one another around the scales and the piece has a sense of a very dramatic, moving piece that evolves from a chase into a dance. The piece becomes slower and there is an intimacy as the strings take over, though they are broken up with a sense of acceleration forced by the presence of louder instruments playing deep dramatic chords. There is an odd sense of both movement and conflict and camaraderie in this piece given the alternations between the quiet supporting instruments that play along with the solo piano and the bigger dramatic sounds that erupt to interrupt them. It is an intriguing piece and as it progressed, I found myself surprised because when I anticipated the louder interruptions, they did not come, allowing for some intimacy between the piano and light strings.

I especially like the dramatic chords near the end, enhanced in this version by the presence of a brass section. There is a big finish complete with rolling tympanies that is quite spectacular and it caps the whole musical experience well.

This album is rather enjoyable and Grieg's music lends itself well to having a brass section, so I prefer this rendition of many of these tracks to the other Grieg album I've reviewed. The best rendition on this album is "Allegro Moderato Molto e Marcato," the low point is the unmemorable "Arabian Dance."

For other Classical music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 1, 4, and 5 - Bach, Glenn Gould
Waltzes & Nocturnes - Ashkenazy, Chopin
Pini Di Roma - Respighi, Eugene Ormandy


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

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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