Grieg: Holberg Suite; Two Melodies, Op. 53; Two Nordic Melodies, Op. 63; Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34; Peer Gynt – Ã…se’s Death

COMPOSERS: Grieg
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Grieg
WORKS: Holberg Suite; Two Melodies, Op. 53; Two Nordic Melodies, Op. 63; Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34; Peer Gynt – Åse’s Death
PERFORMER: Oslo Camerata/Stephan Barratt-Due
CATALOGUE NO: 8.55789
This follow-up to Järvi and the Estonians’ BBC Award-winning Peer Gynt is bound to raise expectations. I’m glad to say it fulfils them. The competition, of course, is not as strong. Much of Grieg is sadly under-recorded, and there are few top-flight collections like this. The obvious comparison remains the 1990s DG recording by Neeme Järvi (still available in a boxed set). These are generally excellent, fresh and lively while bringing out both the imaginative orchestral writing and the depth of feeling underlying Grieg’s nationalist, folksy manner.

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These qualities apply, if anything, even more to Järvi fils. The vibrant energy and clean-lined Estonian playing that made Peer Gynt sound so fresh is thoroughly in evidence here. The very Peer Gynt-ish Norwegian Dances (they were actually included in one staging) are gloriously robust and folksy. The Symphonic Dances, for all their expression and development, almost into quasi tone-poems, still sound like dances, even the massive fourth; yet moments like the second’s grazioso oboe opening remain splendidly airy and delicate. Likewise, the Elegiac Melodies are plangently beautiful without foundering in Germanic sentimentality.

However the Holberg Suite, the best known work here, Järvi takes in a more leisurely fashion than his father, emphasising the dreamy neo-classical nostalgia its full title, From Holberg’s Day, suggests. The ‘Sarabande’ especially becomes languidly elegiac, but there’s plenty of life in the ‘Gavotte’ and ‘Rigaudon’. Personally I find it subtler and more convincing than versions such as Järvi père’s and Marriner’s, let alone the majestic but weighty Karajan.

It’s the Holberg that exemplifies the difference between Järvi’s approach and that of the youthful Oslo Camerata and Stephan Barratt-Due, in a programme composed wholly of Grieg’s works for string orchestra. There’s energy aplenty here, an almost ferocious attack supported by committed playing; but the effect is much less poetic and atmospheric. Which is not to say they’re bad, just more conventional. Likewise, the Elegiac Melodies (which Naxos’s sleeve numbers back to front). The pieces Järvi doesn’t feature, such as the Two Nordic Melodies, I enjoyed; ‘Åse’s Death’ has a nicely exhausted serenity. But where they overlap, Järvi is the subtler and more insightful.

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If you prefer the Oslo programme, this is an attractive and well-recorded collection, particularly at bargain price. But Järvi offers something a bit special, and makes a stronger case for this less familiar Grieg; I trust he’ll give us more. Michael Scott Rohan