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 Recording of the Week, Edward Gardner conducts the incidental music from Grieg's Peer Gynt

I don't think I can recall a time when I wasn't familiar with the famous melodies from Grieg's music for Peer Gynt (I remember capering around to In The Hall of the Mountain-King in a beginner ballet-class when I was no more than five, and the famous pastoral Morning was probably the first piece of classical music I performed in public, thanks to an arrangement for primary-school recorder-group!) but it was only shortly before Christmas that I listened to the incidental music in full, thanks to this terrific new recording from Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic.

The orchestra (one of the oldest in Europe) have serious history with this music, as Grieg served as their artistic director shortly after completing the score which would contain some of his best-loved material but caused him considerable anxiety during the gestation-process: writing to his friend Frants Beyer in 1874, he lamented the difficulty of setting 'the most unmusical of subjects' after being approached by Henrik Ibsen to provide incidental music for his five-act traversal of the misadventures of a picaresque anti-hero from Scandinavian folklore. (After getting drunk at his ex's wedding and running off with the bride, Peer embarks on a fantastical journey which begins with a boozy orgy with three dairy-maids and takes in an existential encounter with the notorious 'Troll-King' of the mountains, a stint as an unscrupulous trader in the Moroccan desert and exploits on the high seas, before taking him back to the village where he grew up and the waiting arms of the faithful Solveig, who fell in love with him at that ill-fated wedding.) Ibsen himself expressed doubts about the viability of staging a text which was conceived as a dramatic poem rather than a work for the theatre, but the music as presented here comes across as a compelling and coherent symphonic poem that paves the way for Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. (The musical narrative itself, particularly the closing lullaby as the prodigal protagonist is sung to sleep by his faithful lover after suffering a mental breakdown, also put me in mind of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress).

Gardner gets things off to a swashbuckling start with a swaggering introduction that showcases the sparkling Bergen strings and gives way to the uncanny sonority of the Hardanger fiddle (an eight or nine-string Scandinavian folk-instrument with a buzzy, hurdy-gurdy-like timbre), paving the way for an account of the score which holds the sweeping symphonic writing and folk elements in ideal balance as well as calibrating the frequent shifts in tempos to perfection. The impact of the big set-pieces owes much to Gardner's superb pacing and ability to ratchet up tension where needed: In The Hall of the Mountain-King (lasting just two-and-a-half minutes) builds from a triple pianissimo whisper and the steadiest of andantes to a terrifying maelstrom of demonic energy, enhanced here by the bloodthirsty shrieks of the trolls which are excised from the two Suites which Grieg later compiled.

But it's the passages which don't appear in those well-known Suites which have the most impact: Peer's desolate little serenade to the treacherous siren Anitra (sung with abject sheepishness by René Jacobs favourite Johannes Weisser), the Whitsun Hymn which greets the errant hero in echoes of the Pilgrims' Chorus from Tannhäuser, and especially the earthy trio of dairy-maids who seduce Peer en masse (shades of Rheingold and Rusalka here!). Their ring-leader is sung by a major emerging talent, the Norwegian lyric-dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen, who made a sensational debut as Ariadne at Glyndebourne last summer and also contributes a luminously seductive Anitra here – it's only her second appearance on disc, but I'm hoping her current artistic residency with the Bergen Philharmonic (she and Gardner perform Wagner's Wesendonk-Lieder and Sibelius's Luonnatar with the orchestra later this month) will bear fruit on Chandos...

I've hardly left space to talk about the other work on the album, a fresh and attractively lean reading of the Piano Concerto with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who approaches this much-recorded piece with an understated lyricism that never becomes splashy or sentimental. That's worth hearing in its own right, but buy this for Peer Gynt – its dark wintry drama is the perfect companion to a bleak January evening.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choirs, Edward Gardner

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