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Penguin Guide, January 2009

GRIEG: Piano Sonata, Op. 7 / Stimmungen / 4 Piano Pieces, Op. 1 8.550881
GRIEG: Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances, Op. 17 and Op. 66 8.550882
GRIEG: Pictures from Everyday Life / Ballade, Op. 24 8.550883
GRIEG: Holberg Suite, Op. 40 / Slatter, Op. 72 8.550884
GRIEG: Norwegian Melodies Nos. 1 - 63 8.553391
GRIEG: Norwegian Melodies Nos. 64 - 117 8.553392
GRIEG: Norwegian Melodies Nos. 118 - 152 8.553393
GRIEG: Lyric Pieces, Books 1 - 4, Opp. 12, 38, 43 and 47 8.553394
GRIEG: Lyric Pieces, Books 5 - 7, Opp. 54, 57 and 62 8.553395
GRIEG: Lyric Pieces, Books 8 - 10, Opp. 65, 68, and 71 8.553396
GRIEG: Peer Gynt, Suites Nos. 1and 2 / Sigurd Jorsalfar / Bergliot 8.553397
GRIEG: Norwegian Dances, Op. 35 / Peer Gynt, Op. 23 / Waltz Caprices 8.553398
GRIEG: Piano Transcriptions of Songs, Op. 41 / Nordic Melodies, Op. 63 8.553399
GRIEG: Piano Transcriptions of Songs, Op. 52 / 23 Small Pieces / 8.553400

Einar Steen-Nøkleberg has recorded every note of music Grieg composed for the piano. He as impressive musical credentials and is, among other things, the author of a book on Grieg’s piano music and its interpretations. His survey displaces earlier sets in quality: he is responsive to mood and is searchingly imaginative in his approach.

Einar Steen-Nøkleberg does not proceed chronologically: the first disc couples early and late Grieg—the very earliest of his published pieces, written while he was still studying at Leipzig, the Humoresques, Op. 6, and the E minor Piano Sonata, Op. 7, alongside the Stimmungen (‘Moods’), Op. 73, composed in the early years of the 20th century (1901–5). Whether the music is early or late, Steen-Nøkleberg plays with total sympathy and dedication, and he is beautifully recorded throughout in the Lindeman Hall of the Norwegian State Academy of Music. Only in the Sonata does he suffer a trace of self-consciousness.

The second disc includes the remarkable Nineteen Norwegian Folksongs, Op. 66, which are contemporaneous with what many would see as Grieg’s masterpiece, the song-cycle Haugtussa, which the composer himself spoke of as full of ‘hair-raising’ chromatic harmonies. (One of the folksongs appears in Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.) But the earlier set, Op. 17, written not long after the first version of the Piano Concerto, is also full of delights.

The third CD includes the poignant Ballade in G min., Op. 24, composed by Grieg on the death of his parents. Steen-Nøkleberg is highly imaginative and, even if some may find his rubato a little extreme, the keyboard colouring is subtle and rich. H e conveys a splendidly rhapsodic spontaneity and there is much feeling. This and Volume 4, with the Seventeen Norwegian Peasant Dances (Slåtter), Op. 72, deserve a particularly strong recommendation. These extraordinary pieces with their quasi-Bartókian clashes are most characterful in Steen-Nøkleberg’s hands.

The next three discs are devoted to Norges Melodier (‘Norway’s Melody’), an anthology Grieg made in the mid-1870s for a Danish publisher, of ‘easy to play’ arrangements of tunes, some of them charming, others less so. Steen-Nøkleberg plays some on the house-organ or harmonium, some on the clavichord, some on a Graf piano to match those sonorities which would have been familiar in Norwegian homes in the 1870s, and some on a Steinway.

Volumes 8–10 survey the delightful Lyric Pieces. They are admirably fresh and are presented with the utmost simplicity, yet are obviously felt. These performances come into direct competition with selections from Pletnev and Gilels. Many will like to have the coverage absolutely complete, and the three Naxos discs cost about the same. The Naxos recording is wholly natural and believable. Einar Steen-Nøkleberg is totally idiomatic and authoritative, and readers wanting a complete set need not hesitate.

With the remaining four volumes we enter the realm of Grieg’s transcriptions of his orchestral works and his juvenilia, as well as sketches for works that did not materialize. Most valuable are the Waltz Caprices, Op. 37, and the early Agitato, EG 106, and Albumblad, EG 109. Both Volumes 11 and 12 are recommendable but dispensable.

The last volumes are another matter. Volume 13 brings rarities in the shape of the Three Piano Pieces, EG 105, and a further three, EG 110–12, all of which are otherwise of the 1874 version of the Piano Concerto. The last volume is of particular interest in that it brings—in addition to various juvenilia—the sketches for a Second Piano Concerto—very Listzian—and the first versions of the slow movement and finale of the Op. 7 Sonata.

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