In her last concert appearance, Kirsten Flagstad celebrates the music and spirit of Edvard Grieg to the delight of the Proms audience.
GRIEG: In Autumn, Op. 11; Lyric Suite, Op. 54; Sigurd Josalfar, Op. 56: Homage March; 10 Songs – Kirsten Flagstad, soprano/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Malcolm Sargent – Pristine Audio PASC 528, 77:29 [www.pristineclasical.com] *****:
The Proms concert of 7 September 1957 at the Royal Albert Hall meant to celebrate 50 years since the passing of esteemed Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. The extended concert program brought Kirsten Flagstad from her two-year retirement, given her intense devotion to the composer. Set in two distinct parts, the concert provided orchestral music prior to each of the two appearances by Flagstad in a total of ten songs. The BBC Transcription Service indicates that the Piano Concerto found a place among the selections, though it does not appear to have been preserved. Ms. Flagstad proceeded to state categorically that she would never again appear before the public in concert: so, producer Andrew Rose and Pristine team give us: Flagstad Sings Grieg: Her Final Concert Performance, 1957.
Sargent opens with the 1865 concert overture In Autumn, Op. 11, a piece I had long associated with Sir Thomas Beecham. The D Major opening already has hints of Peer Gynt, although the woodwinds try to remain bucolic. The development in D minor increases the tension and adds a stormy, militant element, offset by an F Major theme. The music might be the Norwegian equivalent of Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides.” A slower section for strings and horn ensues, and Grieg reprises several of the main themes, galloping and militant, even as the bass line thunders. The opening woodwind receives heroic treatment to conclude a dramatic, fiercely concentrated orchestral tour de force.
Grieg worked on sets of piano pieces, “lyric” pieces, for some forty years; and in 1903 he discovered conductor Anton Seidl had orchestrated several, but not to Grieg’s satisfaction. The Shepherd Boy begins delicately enough, but it soon ascends to a poignant crescendo in the superheated BBC strings, eventually to dissolve into the pearly mix from which it sprang. The final chord has its own appearance in Anitra’s Dance in Peer Gynt. The Norwegian March moves in syncopated figures that waver from brass to flitting winds, harp, and strings. The BBC brass suddenly inject a potent processional into the mix. Grieg utilizes canny suspensions to displace and blur the upbeats and downbeats of the Notturno produce a gauzy, romantically veiled world. The flute and horn add to the hazy alchemy, aided by the harp and swirling strings. Long crescendos and diminuendos mark the March of the Dwarfs, a true moment of Norwegian folk energy, the feet of the militant dwarfs foiled by a sweetly lyrical middle-section theme.
Kirsten Flagstad makes her initial appearance—in Norwegian national costume—in four of the 12 Songs, Op. 33: the first of them, Vaeren (“the Last Spring”) assumed a life of its own as one of the Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34, No. 2. Grieg had embraced the lyrics of Aasmund Olavsson Vinje as early as 1877. Here, the poet sings of a dying man’s sense of love and loss, this spring to be his last experience of Nature. The melody soars in melancholy mysticism, and its tessitura allows Flagstad the anguished girth she relishes. The second, Guten, Op. 33, No. 1, in strophic form, provides a warning to a restless youth. At Rondane, Op. 33, No. 9 sets us a melancholy meditation in the hills, with gorgeous orchestral tissue. Fyremael, Op. 33, No. 12 (“The Goal”) fulfills the dire forecasts of the earlier songs, here in blatant folk syntax, resolute and nostalgic at once.
Grieg prepared music for the play Sigurd Jorsalfar as early as 1872, but in 1892 he expanded the section Sargent performs here, the Homage March. After a brief fanfare, the solo cello provides a noble tune that the orchestra takes up, with its famous catch-in-the-breath phrasing. Trumpet, strings, snare and full orchestral tutti ensure—especially given the shimmering, heroic middle section—a vitally spacious introduction to the second part of the evening at Proms. Flagstad will perform six selected songs that range from his early 1864 setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s Jeg elsker Dig! (“I love you!”) to the 1865 visit to Italy (“the land of colors”) that produced Fra Monte Pincio, whose gardens overlook the city of Rome. The popular En Svane, Op. 25, No. 2—after Ibsen, 1871—establishes a pastoral mood at the outset, but the music soon becomes turbulent, so even its becalmed opening does not provide solace when it returns. Flagstad’s tendency to scoop phrases and invest portamenti into her vocal line may worry some auditors, but her rendition of Det forste Moede, Op. 21, No. 1 (“the First Meeting”), beguiles for sheer sound articulation. Hope, Op. 26, No. 1 artfully combines Flagstad’s ringing upper range with pizzicato stings. Andersen’s Eros, Op. 70, No. 1 achieves an ardent lushness only a step away from Wagner. The immediate eruption of applause delays the final number: for Flagstad to conclude with “I love you!” captures her devotion to the composer and to world of art song she had championed throughout her career.