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Getting to Know Grieg

Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.

On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)

The same is true of the scholars meticulously studying Grieg in this anniversary year. Tone N. Slotsvik, a graduate student in history at the University of Bergen, observes that Grieg was rightly acclaimed for his outrage at the persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus—even refusing an invitation to perform in Paris in 1899. When Dreyfus was unjustly convicted a second time by an anti-Semitic cabal, Grieg wrote to his French hosts, “I am so upset by the disdain of justice demonstrated in France that I don’t feel it possible to be in contact with the French public.” Loads of hate mail from France and elsewhere deluged Grieg, who did not waver in his beliefs. (Yet, as Slotsvik notes, Grieg was no philo-Semite either, repeatedly using the word “Jewish” in his correspondence in a pejorative sense.)

Grieg’s complexities and contradictions are fully expressed in his music, as some of the best available CD’s reveal. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are played with spiky philosophical grace by the Norwegian pianist Haakon Austbö on a 3-CD set from Brilliant Classics. Glenn Gould gives a fresh viewpoint to Grieg’s Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 7 on SONY. Listeners who feel overfamiliar with Grieg’s Piano Concerto might sample the freewheeling, dynamic 1927 recording by Grieg’s friend the pianist Arthur De Greef on Pearl and Simax. Grieg himself made magical records in 1903, also reprinted on Simax, though marred by a good deal of surface noise.

Other must-hear interpreters of the Concerto include Benno Moiseiwitsch on Testament, as well as Dinu Lipatti, Sviatoslav Richter, and Leif Ove Andsnes on EMI. (Nothing played by musicians of this caliber seems hackneyed.) Likewise, Iona Brown’s conducting of Grieg’s Holberg Suite on Virgin Classics makes the work sound as vivacious as it doubtless will prove to be under Per Brevig’s baton at Zankel Hall in December.


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