Grieg: Chasing The Butterfly

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GRIEG Butterfly. 1,2 To Spring. 1,2 Remembrances. 1,2 Gangar. 1,2 Humoreske. 1,2 Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. 1,2 Bridal Procession Passes 1,2. Piano Sonata in e : Excerpts 1 , and complete 2. Ballade in g 2. Piano Concerto in a 2,3 1 Edvard Grieg, 2 Sigurd Slåttebrekk (pn); 3 Michail Jurowski, cond; 3 Oslo PO SIMAX 1299, mono/stereo (2 CDs: 108:03)

This is one of the most fascinating and, at times, controversial releases of the year—or perhaps I should say “years,” as the Grieg recordings date from 1903 and the Piano Concerto from 2005 (previously released on Simax 1260). The premise is a conscious attempt on the part of Slåttebrekk to copy Grieg’s own phrasing and style as preserved on the old recordings, using Grieg’s own piano at his home in Troldhaugen, not only in the nine selections that Grieg played himself but also in the Ballade in G Minor and the concerto.

The extensive and fascinating liner notes describe the journey that both Slåttebrekk and producer Tony Harrison took in their discovery, absorption, and dissemination process. In many ways, this is indeed a giant step forward (or backward, depending on your perspective) toward re-creating the performance style of the composer’s own era. The final question, however, is does it work? And, if so, how much?

When Slåttebrekk’s recording of the concerto was first released, it received glowing reviews all round. David Hurwitz, at Classics Today, said, “If this performance isn’t the finest of them all, it’s so exceptional that it will make you forget about any others.” Bold words, indeed. In this double-CD set, titled Chasing the Butterfly, Slåttebrekk’s version of the concerto acts as an appendix to his now-larger project of stylistic re-creation. That he succeeds to an amazing degree in the specific pieces that Grieg himself recorded is beyond question. A-B comparisons of both pianists’ recordings are fascinating, though I did not appreciate having all the Slåttebrekk performances grouped together first, followed by all the Grieg recordings. I had to keep getting up and moving my CD player forward and backward from Grieg’s own versions to Slåttebrekk’s and back again in order to get the full effect of what he was trying to accomplish.

In his complete performance of the sonata, Slåttebrekk does a remarkable job of incorporating the rhetorical phrasing and creative use of dynamics and rhythm that Grieg himself did in the third movement and an abridged performance of the fourth into the whole work. The result is one of the most fascinating performances I’ve ever heard. On the other hand, I am less convinced by his conception of the Ballade. What is a lightweight but charming work is here so broken up into sections that it becomes fragmented. It sounds like a collection of small pieces forcibly joined together, and thus loses any sense of structure.

The concerto is indeed a fascinating performance and, yes, several passages in all three movements are played in a way unlike that of most other pianists. I find it unusual and rewarding to listen to. But I cannot, with honesty, say as Hurwitz did that it supersedes all other recorded versions of the work. There are some quite interesting moments in the famous Lipatti-Karajan recording, and Leif Ove Andsnes did a first-class job of it on his recording with Mariss Jansons (EMI 394399). Indeed, on that same album, Andsnes also plays the Ballade, as well as Wedding Day at Troldhaugen and Remembrances , and though he plays with more continent phrasing and less rhythmic swing, I find myself liking his version of the former more than Slåttebrekk and the short pieces just as much. Andsnes also plays with a certain amount of rubato and touches of rhetorical phrasing; perhaps this is a style that is inbred in Norwegian pianists? The first recording I ever heard of the concerto was one recorded c.1963 and issued on RCA’s budget-priced Victrola label, by a Norwegian pianist and conductor whose names I can no longer recall, and it, too, was much more strongly rhythmic and more interesting in phrasing than many a version by more cosmopolitan pianists and conductors.

As for Harrison’s transfers of Grieg’s 1903 recordings, they are pretty dreadful, leaving most of the original surface noise in as well as some ticks, pops, and, in one selection, an annoying loud skritch that mars listening pleasure. I’m starting to believe that British record producers are taught from the cradle the utterly false maxim that “there are overtones of the music in the surface noise,” and that to remove them compromises the recording. This is utter nonsense. The complete set of the Grieg recordings is also available on a Marston release that includes Raul Puigno’s recordings and, although I haven’t heard it, I am familiar enough with Ward Marston’s work to be able to say with some certitude that he undoubtedly took more of the noise out and left more of the music in.

I should point out, however, that these are minor quibbles about an otherwise extraordinary release. Pianists and Grieg scholars will want this to study and assimilate. The concerto performance, though not head and shoulders above every other version ever made, is certainly in the upper echelon, and its phrasing is undeniably unique. This, then, is a starting point, not only for Slåttebrekk and Grieg performance in general, but for musicological research that finally takes into account the way composers played, conducted, and/or heard their own works during their lifetime. Slåttebrekk has opened up Pandora’s Box and, as you know from the legend, that lid cannot be slammed shut once opened.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 25, 2011

  • Catalog Number: PSC1299

  • UPC: 7033662012992

  • Label: Simax Classics

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Edvard Grieg

  • Conductor: Michail Jurowski

  • Performer: Edvard Grieg, Sigurd Slåttebrekk