Grieg: Complete Solo Piano Music / Knardahl, Derwinger
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A beautifully packaged box of the complete Grieg piano music on BIS and a fantastic deal at 12 CDs for the price of 3.
There is so much here that one can explore these works for years and never truly get to the bottom of them... a collection of gems that sparkle from any angle.
Eva Knardahl's recordings of Grieg's music for solo piano – here completed with recordings by Love Derwinger of the works unpublished during Grieg's lifetime – have been a milestone ever since they were first released on LP at the end of the 1970s. The Norwegian pianist's interpretations of the music of her countryman blew away decades worth of cobwebs and caused many to reconsider an oeuvre of which one part was so well-known as to risk becoming banal and another was all but unknown. At the time of the first release one reviewer likened Knardahl to ‘an Alicia de Larrocha of the North, who makes her instrument ring out like a cathedral’. When the recordings were re-released on CD, another wrote that her performances ‘suggest that there's a lot more to Grieg's several hundred little pieces than pretty lyricism ... She brings a forthrightness and color to the Norwegian master – even a countrified robustness – that few have suspected is there. Knardahl's performance of the famous Piano Concerto is a rendering full of grandeur, poetry and power. She can really stand comparison with any of her rivals.’
Norwegian-born pianist Eva Knardahl, who died in late 2006, had a very long career. Well-known in her native Norway, she made her debut at the age of 12 performing with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Throughout her life, she recorded a variety of works for piano, paying special attention to the works of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. This box set contains 12 CDs, covering all of Grieg’s compositions for piano.
Knardahl performs on the first ten discs in the set, and Love Derwinger is the pianist for the recordings on discs 11 and 12. This is a repackaging of individual discs that were released over the years, with the Knardahl recordings made between 1977 and 1980, and the Derwinger recordings dating from 1993. It seems unfair that only Knardahl gets her name on the front of the box; Derwinger is credited only on the back. Knaredahly’s recordings were issued first on LP and then reissued on CD in 1987.
The set contains a comprehensive booklet in English, Swedish, German and French, nearly 180 pages long - about 30 pages of text for each language. Fortunately, unlike many other Bis booklets, this one printed in a font that does not require a magnifying glass to read.
Grieg's piano music is one of the monuments of keyboard music, and probably deserves to be regarded much more highly. While not as intense as Beethoven's piano sonatas, or the works of Chopin or Liszt; while not as lofty as the vast output of Bach or that of Mozart, Grieg's piano music combines not only a unique impressionistic approach to the piano, but also elements of folk music from his native Norway. On top of that, many of the tunes in the short pieces are so engaging that you'll find yourself humming them.
Grieg's piano works are mostly made up of short pieces. His 66 lyric pieces, were composed throughout his career but there are also collections of Norwegian folk songs, peasant dances and other works. With just one piano sonata, and one piano concerto - but what a concerto! - his oeuvre is largely one of miniatures. But the size of these works in no way detracts from their interest and force. One can simply listen to the first of the Lyric Pieces, Arietta, to understand just how subtle Grieg's compositional style is. In a simple-sounding ballad of just over a minute, he manages not only to paint a melancholy picture, but also demonstrates that his harmonies are unique and unforgettable. This is a brief piano piece that is more a song without words than a statement of keyboard music.
The three discs of lyric pieces span his entire career, so listening to them in order offers not just a journey through melody, but also an opportunity to listen to how Grieg's style grew over time. His Op. 4 no. 3, Melody, has an intense, melodramatic sound, as does, for example, Op. 54, no. 1, Shepherd's Boy, which is a dark work. Some pieces have such lightness that one can only smile when listening to them. In a way, however, it is fitting that the final work in this series, Op. 71, no. 7, Forgetting, is a reworking of one of the earliest lyric pieces, Waltz, Op. 12 no. 2. Grieg comes full circle with this last lyric piece, showing the subtle ways in which his music evolved.
While there is pleasure enough in listening to the progression of Grieg's style through the first three discs of lyric pieces, one can start again with disc 4, which begins another examination of Grieg's career in chronological order. While it makes sense to group the lyric pieces on the first three discs - which also corresponds to the original release of these recordings on individual discs - it might have been more logical to reorder all the music so the twelve discs flowed in chronological sequence, rather than having two "sets" within the box.
Beginning with the earliest pieces, his Op. 1, Four Piano Pieces, his Poetic Tone-Pictures (Op. 3) and so on, the set traverses his output. In spite of the different names given to groups of works, Grieg's tone does not vary a great deal. All the pieces cover a range of tones from melancholy to exuberant, from bittersweet to pastoral.
An exception can be found in his sets of Norwegian folk songs, where he arranged the raw material of his country's music heritage for solo piano. These helped gain him greater notice, and are one of the finest examples of folk-music brought into the concert hall. There are dozens of such works, many of them tiny gems, others more substantial.
Grieg also wrote one piano sonata, which is somewhat different, on the surface, from his smaller works. A true romantic sonata, it nevertheless features his now familiar song-like approach to music, especially in its second movement. This sonata was and is often performed, yet it is surprising that he did not write another. He remained more interested in his miniatures though he also wrote orchestral and chamber works. In the same manner, he composed just the one piano concerto, which is an extremely popular and oft-performed work. It is played here by Knardahl, with the original version also performed by Love Derwinger.
One work that stands out is the Ballade in G minor, Op. 24, the longest amongst Grieg's pianistic output at just over 20 minutes in this recording. This comprises a series of 14 variations on a Norwegian folk song. Grieg composed this piece after the deaths of his parents in the autumn of 1875. He was overcome with grief, and that comes through in this densely emotional work Knardahl plays it with her emotions at her fingertips.
Some of the pieces are transcriptions from Grieg's larger orchestral works, such as Peer Gynt, Sigurd Jorsalfar, and the Holberg Suite. Grieg very much enjoyed making piano reductions of these works, and his transcriptions shed interesting light on the larger works from which they derive.
The last two discs contain works not published during Grieg's lifetime. Whether the early version of the Piano Concerto, alternate versions of a few works, or some very early pieces that he never deemed interesting enough for publication, these two discs in essence offer the extras or out-takes of Grieg's piano output.
Across the 787 minutes of this set, I have to confess to a preference for Grieg's shorter pieces over the piano sonata, concerto and Ballade. From almost any time in his career, from his lyric pieces to the Norwegian folk songs, from his "short pieces" to his transcriptions of his own songs, dipping into this astounding range of work is never disappointing. In the same way that Schubert rarely wrote a mediocre lied, Grieg has very few weak piano pieces. You can dip into these works at any time and the gods of shuffle will pull out an interesting juxtaposition of pieces that, in spite of when they were composed, fit together organically. There is so much here - again, the comparison to Schubert's lieder comes to mind - that one can explore these works for years and never truly get to the bottom of them. While the last two discs contain some works that are, perhaps, minor, the remainder of this set is a collection of gems that sparkle from any angle.
The recording quality of these discs is excellent, and the piano sounds present without too much reverb, though the Derwinger recordings are a bit hollower than the Knardahl discs. The recording hall adds a different type of reverb, and Derwinger plays a Steinway to Knardahl’s Bösendorfer. For an interesting recording, you might also want to listen to Leif Ove Andsnes' selection of Lyric Pieces played on Grieg's own piano. Given the price and completeness of this set, and the quality of the performances, there is little reason for you to hesitate. Even if you've only sampled Grieg's works in the past, this budget set is a fine reason to discover the full range of his piano compositions. Should you not want all this Grieg, however, the individual discs are still available from BIS, and the three CDs of Lyric Pieces would be a great purchase.
-- Kirk McElhearn, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: BIS-CD-1626-28
Composer: Edvard Grieg, Johan Halvorsen
Conductor: Jun'ichi Hirokami, Kjell Ingebretsen
Orchestra/Ensemble: Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Performer: Eva Knardahl, Kjell Ingebretsen, Love Derwinger