“It has become important for me to make people open their ears and minds to new and unknownsides of Grieg’s music – reaching beyond national pathos and postcard lyricism. What if he also was a modernist, a barbarian, a devil?”
– Bjarte Engeset
Edvard Grieg and his librettist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson were both fascinated by a great period in Norway’s past: the Viking Age, whose sagas, and fierce conflicts between Christianity and the old Norse religion, inspired all three of Grieg’s works recorded here. Landkjenning depicts the moment when Olav Trygvason (960s-1000) and his men sight the Norwegian coast for the first time on their voyage from England to Norway. As King from 995 to 1000, Olav worked single-mindedly to Christianise Norway. Conceived as a true Norwegian national opera, but left unfinished, the three scenes from Olav Trygvason explore pagan rituals and tributes to the Norse gods in anticipation of King Olav’s entrance into the pagan temple.
About the Artists
Bjarte Engeset has been music director of the Tromsø Symphony Orchestra, artistic director of Northern Norway’s Northern Lights Festival and Opera Nord, and permanent guest conductor of the Flemish Radio Orchestra. Since 2007 he has served as chief conductor of Sweden’s DalaSinfonietta. His acclaimed recordings for Naxos include works by Svendsen, Tveitt, Grieg, Sibelius and Sinding.
Grieg's intentions realised
I probably heard Grieg’s music even before I was born, played and sung by my mother. Thus my relation with his works has been quite intuitive and direct. As a child I felt that many of Grieg’s musical characteristics were closely connected to the strong nature of Western Norway surrounding me.
When Klaus Heymann generously asked me to record the Complete Orchestral Music by Grieg for Naxos, I used this unique opportunity to dive deeper into Grieg’s universe, rethinking my ‘Grieg myths’. A lot of reading and thinking went in to the booklet texts included in the eight CD releases; also into an as yet unpublished book on Grieg’s orcxhestration. This thrilling CD project gave me the opportunity to record together with three different performing bodies of fine orchestral musicians in Scotland and Sweden, several enthusiastic choirs and a large number of outstanding soloists, many of them good friends over the years.
It has become important for me to make people open their ears and minds to new and unknown sides of Grieg’s music – reaching beyond national pathos and ‘postcard lyricism’. His music is not just one-dimensional and nostalgic. What if he also was a modernist, a barbarian, a devil?
I have chosen eight paintings by the West Norwegian artist Nicolai Astrup as cover art for the series. They are in the style of Naivism, but with rich content and undercurrents. Also Grieg has a special sense of naiveté and natural freshness. In his writings we often find the concept of a poetic paradise with harmony between humans and nature, lifting us “into better worlds”.
But there is also a special wild energy in Grieg’s universe. Sometimes this takes the shape of accents and rhythmical punctuations, typically in the first ‘big bang’ of the Piano Concerto. Grieg’s fusion with nature can be life-threatening, with turbulent autumn storms, waterfalls and primeval forces. Especially in the theatre music for Peer Gynt he uses a quite bizarre, parodic and extreme style, described by himself as “non-music”, full of edgy contrasts and forceful energy. We bravely added wind machines, ponticello effects and screaming children, trying to create the “murderous bluster” he asks for. We also added exotic instruments like Norwegian cow bells and Arabian percussion to get closer to his intentions. Furthermore we made many explorations of the physical possibilities, such as placing the performers in different locations around the hall.
Textual phrasing, lightness and the sense of pulse in folk music is for me very often present in Grieg’s scores. For the recording of Peer Gynt I therefore invited folk singers and folk musicians to join in and really make an impact on the overall performance.
When I tell fellow musicians that there are as many as eight CDs in the Naxos series of his orchestral music, they’re always surprised. Ultimately, his musical mind in general was very much focused on colour. He was indeed an orchestral composer. His string works were conceived for a large group of musicians, around 60, with the special fullness, fusion, power and depth of sound this brings. This is the size we use in our recordings.
The recording of the final volume was especially challenging. These choral/orchestral works all have texts by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910). They were created dreaming of a new, democratic and independent Norway. But it is not uncommon for music that was once seen as rebellious and tempestuously Romantic to be co-opted later as a monument of nostalgic nationalism. In the recording sessions we therefore had to make some important choices between pompous heroism on the one hand, and youthfulness, flexibility, wholeheartedness and revolutionary schwung on the other.
Grieg’s music is very rich in interpretative possibilities. He was a sophisticated, idealistic humanist. I think therefore that, above all else, we cannot avoid emphasising the dignified, profound, honest noblesse and subtleness inherent in his complex musical universe.