GRIEG: Olav Trygvason, Op. 50; Landkjenning; Two Choruses and Inci. Music from Sigyrd Jorsalfar; NEUPERT: Resignation – Malmo Chamber Choir/ Lund Student Singers/ Malmo Opera Chorus/ Malmo Sym. Orch./ Malmo Opera Orch./ Bjarte Engeset – Naxos

GRIEG: Olav Trygvason, Op. 50; Landkjenning, Op. 31; Two Choruses and Incidental Music from Sigyrd Jorsalfar, Op. 22; NEUPERT: Resignation (orch. Grieg) – Malmo Chamber Choir/ Lund Student Singers/ Malmo Opera Chorus/ Malmo Sym. Orch./ Malmo Opera Orch./ Bjarte Engeset – Naxos 8.573045, 64:19 (11/13/13) ****:

Conductor Bjarete Engeset has assembled (rec. May, 2009-June, 2012) a new and refreshing collection of Grieg works, particularly the composer’s setting of texts by Bjoenstjerne Bjoernson (1832-1910), many of which served a political purpose, as integral aspects of the campaign for national freedom and democratic humanism for Norway, at the time still attached to Sweden. The struggle for an independent Norwegian identity would find fruition in 1905. Grieg credited Bjoernson with having “made me a democrat, artistically and politically. It is through you, Bjoernson, that we feel the beat of Norway’s pulse.”

Landkjenning (1872), Op. 31 recounts the “Land-Sighting” by Olav Trygvason (c. 960-1000) and his men of the Norwegian coastline as they voyaged from England to Norway. On his way to claim his throne, Olav experienced a religious ecstasy upon looking at his native shore, a land he would work enthusiastically to Christianize. A simple hymn form dominates the six-minute work, the entire grand line producing a deliberate hypnotic effect. Yngve Soeberg, bass-baritone, intones Olav’s swelling feelings of pride and mission as he view the coastline. A pantheistic awe informs the music, as Norway becomes the goddess of a fecund Nature.

Two Choruses from Sigurd Jorsalfar (c. 1872) derive from the period when both Grieg and Bjoernson lived in Christiania.  Grieg worked with composer-conductor Johann Svendsen (1840-1910) at the same time, founding the Music Association Orchestra for which Grieg supplied choral-orchestral repertory. Sigurd the Crusader was conceived “as a work for the people” by Bjoernson. The first of the two songs celebrates Sigurd’s wanderlust: “The Northland people” have the urge to travel toward heroic (Viking) deeds. But Sigurd will learn to curb his penchant for “laying waste” to other nations to stay and build his own nation with brother Eystejn. “The King’s Song” celebrates the two brothers’ reconciliation. Helge Roenning, tenor, sings of the balm of peace between the brothers, especially after Sigurd controls his warlike temper. Grieg wished the “Horn Calls” from Sigurd Joselfar to recur at various points in the play. The fanfare heralds a needed meeting of the realm to resolve conflicts between the brothers. The ultimate resolution to the conflicts occurs in the famed Homage March. Conductor Engeset gives us two Interludes of royal character, including 22 bars previously excised in the opening section. The Homage March is quoted in abbreviated form as the lovely Intermezzo. The music then becomes more energetic, perhaps revealing a few sonic debts to Wagner.

Scenes from Olav Trygvason, Op. 50 (1873) present Grieg’s aborted plan for a Norwegian national opera, set at a period when the pagan Norse religion resisted the oncoming influence of Christianity. Grieg wrote of a “uniquely mysterious atmosphere pervading [the opera], and I’m looking forward to getting going with it.” Unfortunately, in addition to aesthetic arguments between Bjoernson and Grieg, the latter’s work on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt permanently curtailed further work on Olav Trygvason. The extended Prologue unfolds as three long sequences, each at a higher pitch than its predecessor, in which a sacrificial priest (bass Magne Fremmerlid) and a woman (Nina Gravrok, soprano) intone a catalogue of Norse gods.  In scene two, a priestess (Marianne E. Andersen, mezzo-soprano) asks the Norse gods, amid thunder and earthquake, where Olav will confront them to legitimate his rule. The parallels to Shakespeare’s Macbeth seem obvious. The last sequence, Scene III, presents the virile – and lyrically affecting – ritual dance, the act of “Holy Games” performed by men who leap over sacred fire while brandishing their swords.  Grieg attempted to inspire Bjoernson to further the libretto, but Grieg soon resigned himself to the fact that “Trygvason will always remain a torso.”

Norwegian composer Edmund Neupert (1842-1888) wrote a piece – as part of his Eight Studies , Op. 26 – called “Sing me back home!” of which Bjoernson remained fond. Neupert, to whom Grieg dedicated the Piano Concerto, Op. 16, served as its first soloist.  Grieg orchestrated the Neupert song in 1895, in two versions; Engeset performs that for orchestra alone. This realization provides us the World Premier Recording.

—Gary Lemco

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