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Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

The Malmö is led by Vassily Sinaisky in a fine performance of Franz Schmidt’s First Symphony (8.570828) and by Bjarte Engeset in a strong performance of Grieg’s complete music for Peer Gynt (8.570871-72, two discs).

George Chien
Fanfare, March 2009

Engeset captures the essence of Grieg’s music vividly, emphasizing its dramatic implications. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

Lawrence Hansen
American Record Guide, March 2009

Unless you want only the suites Grieg extracted for concert use, this music pretty much almost requires some interweaving of text from Ibsen’s play. Otherwise, you’re hearing a lot of disjointed snippets of music with no context…The Malmo Symphony and Engeset, plus a battalion of actors, vocal soloists, and chorus, play with a commitment and authority that eclipses the old Per Dreier recording (Unicorn), despite its exhaustive completeness, and more than rivals the Blomstedt (Decca), even if it doesn’t quite attain Beecham’s musical standards. Peer Gynt is in many ways a better telling of the Faust legend than Goethe’s Faust—a work that probes the human capacity for self deception with considerably more subtlety, with a central character no less self-absorbed than Faust but far more interesting. Much of that comes out here, the only drawback being that even with translations, the English-speaking listener is kept at arm’s length from the words. But the music is as direct and powerful and pungent as ever, in rich, vivid, three dimensional sound.

Naxos fills out the second disc with Before a Southern Convent, a highly operatic scene for soprano, mezzo, and women’s chorus about a young woman seeking sanctuary at a convent after her lover has killed her father and raped her. It’s beautifully and expressively sung by Isa Katharina Gericke as the young woman and Marianne Anderson as the prioress. Bergliot is built around a poem by the same author, Grieg’s friend Bjornstjerne Bjornson (who also wrote the text for the abortive Olav Trygvason project), in the form of a melodrama—orchestral music woven around a spoken text. Bergliot is the wife of a slain Viking chieftain who attempts to rouse her dead husband’s followers to exact vengeance until she realizes that that won’t assuage her loss, and she arrives at a level of acceptance. Froydis Armand projects the text in contralto-like tones with a raw, throaty, soul-bearing directness.

Mike Ashman
Gramophone, March 2009

This first ever bargain release of all Grieg's music for Ibsen's harrowing drama of self-discovery must tempt a wider audience to hear what is, alongside Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream and Bizet's L 'Arlésienne, one of the 19th-century's finest theatre scores—and undoubtedly the composer's masterpiece in large-scale form. As conductor Bjarte Engeset points out in a detailed note, "the text forced Grieg to produce sounds, and indeed a whole aesthetic, that point far forward in time towards what would later be called impressionism, primitivism and modernism". And nowhere more so than in the two melodramas which those who only know this music from the Suites never get to hear—Act 2's "Peer Gynt and the Bøyg" and Act 5's Night Scene. Here, over a series of ghostly pedal points and wind chords somewhere between Weber and Stravinsky, Peer wrestles with his conscience voiced by unseen spirits and objects.

Engeset and his Swedish players and Norwegian actors and singers provide the most sensible mix of spoken word and music yet arrived at for home listening and have more fun with this music in the studio than anyone since Masur or Beecham. Try Itziar Galdos's cheeky Anitra, spry in both dialogue and song with an infectious laugh, or the brilliant idea to cast the Herd Girls (Grieg's very own Rhinedaughters-teasing-Alberich scene) with folk rather than concert singers. Actors Hans Jakob Sand (Peer) and Erik Hijvu (pretty much every other male including the Mountain King) are not only richly delivered characters but integrate the play seamlessly with the music-making. Such sheer theatricality outpoints the pioneering Neeme Jarvi set (DG, 8/05) and the more recent Bergen performance (BIS, NOS). Naxos's website provides good texts and translations. Indeed, with a bonus of nigh on half an hour of superior Grieg Bjørnson settings, the new release leapfrogs all competition except, perhaps, the Guillaume Tourniaire (Aeon, NOS), neither version of which, however, is in Norwegian.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, February 2009

The present issue is the fifth instalment in Bjarte Engeset's Grieg Edition and as on the two most recent issues (Vol. 4 Peer Gynt Suites, Orchestral Songs - 8.570236, Vol. 3 Symphony, Old Norwegian Romance with Variations - 8.557991) he conducts the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, which is a splendid body with a number of very successful recordings to their credit. Sixten Ehrling's set with the Berwald symphonies received a Gramophone Award. There is fine rapport between the orchestra and Bjarte Engeset and Scandinavian orchestras have Grieg's music more or less in their blood. They also recorded the Peer Gynt suites coupled with the six orchestral songs (Vol. 4 Peer Gynt Suites, Orchestral Songs - 8.570236) only a year before this complete undertaking.

I wrote in my review of that previous disc that it felt 'undisputedly right' and this feeling also prevails here. Tempos are natural, which implies that they don't draw the listener's attention to the readings as some 'clever' interpretations can do. In some of the numbers that also constitute the two suites there are small differences but only variations of the kind one experiences every time one listens to the same interpreter on, say, two consecutive evenings in the same music. What definitely must draw the attention of a listener unfamiliar with the complete music is the inventive scoring and bold harmonies. This is especially noticeable when the chorus is involved and for those who only know In the Hall of the Mountain King from the orchestral suite this wild and barbaric version with screaming trolls will come as a shock (CD1 tr. 10). Peer Gynt chased by the Trolls (CD1 tr. 12) is a real thriller and his encounter with the three dairymaids (CD1 tr. 7) is also a far cry from the 'sugary' Grieg. There were some detractors in the twentieth century who thought his music too idyllic for Ibsen's 'bitter, timeless work'. Probably they were only familiar with the orchestral suites. Here Bjarte Engeset has chosen singers primarily active in folk music and there is a raw primitivism about their wholehearted and uninhibited performance.

There is also a fair share of exotic music, partly known from the suites, but the Arabian Dance (CD1 tr. 18) incorporates women's voices, which makes it even more Arabic, and, deeply rooted in the Norwegian mountains as the Mountain King's daughter must be, her dance (CD1 tr. 11) reveals that she has probably spent a holiday south of the Mediterranean. It is probably no coincidence that when we first meet her as the Woman in Green (CD1 tr. 8) she is accompanied by phrases from Morning Mood, later played as orchestral introduction to Act IV (CD 1 tr. 16), which is set in North Africa. The most special music in the score is arguably the long eerie, dark and foreboding Night Scene in Act V (CD2 tr. 5). This is music that heralds impressionism and even more advanced developments in 20th century music.

There are generous helpings of spoken dialogue included to heighten the impression of the drama. We hear a lot from Peer himself, superbly acted by Hans Jakob Sand, but there are also excellent contributions from several others, none more so than Anne Marit Jacobsen's touching Aase. During Aase's Death (CD1 tr. 15) the eyes brim with tears. Peer Gynt's sole vocal contribution, his Serenade in Act IV, is well sung by Yngve A. Søberg and Isa Katharina Gericke (Solveig). Basque-born Itziar M. Galdos (Anitra) is splendid.

The Norwegian texts and English translations that are available on internet are very useful —I would even say necessary—to follow the proceedings. Scandinavians have an advantage, being able to follow the original more or less effortlessly. A minor drawback is the fact that the version printed here is based on a concert performance of Peer Gynt and includes much more spoken text than is included on the recording. The advantage is that one get an even fuller picture of the play—Ibsen entitled it 'dramatic poem'. Readers who want to print the text should know that it totals 40 pages including the words for the two fillers.

Foran Sydens Kloster…This scene for two female voices and women's chorus was intended to form part of a longer work, based on Björnson's Arnljot Gelline but it was never finished. The action in Arnljot Gelline takes place in the early eleventh century… Bjarte Engeset instead sees parallels with Tamino's meeting with the Speaker in The Magic Flute. Whichever parallel one prefers it is fine lyrical music and I particularly like the 'Heavenly choir of nuns at the end'.

This music was written in 1871, just before Grieg composed the Peer Gynt score. At the same time he started working on Bergliot, also a Björnson text, but it wasn't completed until 1885. It is based on an Icelandic Saga, found in Snorre Sturlason's Heimskringla. This emotionally charged melodrama is about a Viking woman, whose husband and son are murdered by Harald Hardråde. Frøydis Armand invests her monologue with such tangible feelings: the joy and pride that is turned into sorrow and wrath - and finally to resignation. The music follows the changes of the text and again shows that Grieg was no plain idyllist. There is pathos here as well as nobility. I suspect that it is an advantage to understand the original language. I don't understand why Armand lacks a biography in the booklet when everybody else has one. After all this is the most important solo contribution on this disc, next to Hans Jakob Sand's Peer Gynt.

While neither of the two Björnson settings will ever be standard works it is a treat indeed to have them in such committed readings and they add further to the value of this highly recommendable set. The complete Peer Gynt is a work that should be heard by every music lover. I am sure that many listeners will have an even higher opinion of Grieg as a composer after hearing it. This set is another feather in Bjarte Engeset's cap. His Grieg series goes from strength to strength.

Andrew Steward
Classic FM, February 2009

Ibsen's Peer Gynt was written in 1867 as a verse play, conceived for the imagination rather than the theatre. Its original staging had around 90 minutes of music by Grieg, more integral than incidental to the drama if this rich, captivating recording is any measure. The trolls, milkmaids and picturesque scene-shifts are brought to life by excellent Norwegian-speaking actors; and Engeset and his energetic Malmö forces reach deep beneath the surface of Grieg's score to expose its innate drama and uplifting spiritual grace. Downloadable texts and translations underline this album's revelatory power.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

Sometimes I have to keep my enthusiasm in check, but this is simply a magnificent release at a ridiculously low price. Though described as the ‘Complete Incidental Music’ it is far more, employing a large cast of actors and singers to relate Ibson’s story, the superb performance taking more than two hours. The well-known suites provide only an overview of Grieg’s achievement, and do not chronologically follow the story of the daydreaming Peer Gynt. His adventures were graphically told in music, and you have only to go as far as the fifth track, Ingrid’s Lament, to hear the depth of feeling the conductor, Bjarte Engeset, engenders. Then move to track seven to hear the Boys’ and Girls’ Choruses of the Lund Cultural School who act and sing with such unbridled enthusiasm. Of course Engeset is too caring a musician to inflict the garbled mad dash to the finishing that In the Hall of the Mountain King usually suffers, and how lovely to have the chorus in the final bars. I really could go on enthusing about the whole performance, but I will content myself by commenting on the perfectly focused and pure soprano of Isa Katherina Gericke in Solveig’s two songs. The Malmo orchestra is impressive in every department, the brass rounded rather than blatant, the strings having a nice bright edge to their sound. The Malmo Chamber Choir is outstanding and add Grieg’s choral work, Foran Sydens Kloster (Before a Southern Convent). The final track is given to the melodrama, Bergliot, a dramatic score that was a particular favourite of the composer, and here narrated superbly by Froydis Armand. The final funeral march is overpowering in its sadness. In every way the engineers have created a totally believable sound-stage, the actors in the same acoustic as the orchestra, and orchestral detail so unfailingly clear.

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