GRIEG: String Quartet No. 1; SVENDSEN: String Octet – Kocian Quartet & M. Nostitz Quartet – Praga Digitals

by | Apr 1, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

GRIEG: String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 27; JOHAN SVENDSEN: String Octet in A Major, Op. 3 – Kocian Quartet & M. Nostitz Quartet – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250 274, 73:33 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
While Grieg and Svendsen are the two composers most identified with Norwegian musical nationalism, their careers and relative strengths are different. Despite the fact that Grieg’s most popular work is his Piano Concerto and that others of his large sonata-form chamber works remain in the repertory, he is most associated with stage music and musical miniatures such as his Lyrical Pieces for piano. On the other hand, Svendsen announced himself to the world with the beautifully written String Octet, his Opus 3, and went on to write two symphonies that convinced Grieg to leave symphonic writing to someone else; Grieg’s only symphony is one of his most frequently disparaged works. Svendsen eventually became a renowned conductor, leader of the Royal Theater Orchestra in Copenhagen, and he came to devote less and less time to composition while Grieg’s fame as a composer continued to grow.
Grieg’s first attempt at a string quartet in 1861 is presumed lost. His second attempt, from 1877-78, gave him considerable trouble. He complained to his friend Gottfred Mattison-Hansen that he still didn’t feel comfortable working in large forms: “Nothing I do satisfied me and even though I feel full of ideas, I don’t manage to sufficient give them an acceptable form. . . .” Apparently, Grieg wanted not only to try his hand at music of greater depth than the “occasional” works he had completed to date (Peer Gynt, Sigurd Josalfar) but also to bring some innovative touches to quartet form. The result is a work that abandons Haydn’s model of an intimate conversation among equals for a sound that’s almost symphonic in nature. Grieg has been criticized for this though it’s clear from his pronouncements that he set out to do something very different with the medium.
To whatever extent you find Grieg successful, at least you immediately recognize the composer in the work. The melodies, based on Norwegian folksong, have the stamp of Grieg, but the whole work, except for the more easygoing finale, has an air of soaring intensity about it that doesn’t sound like typical Grieg. Even the third movement is titled Intermezzo rather than Scherzo and is more harried than playful. For me, the first movement—with its biting first theme and slowly unfolding, songful second—isn’t entirely successful; the seams show too prominently in the fabric of Grieg’s sonata form. But the unexpectedly hushed and sober development section is a surprise after the Sturm und Drang of the opening, and overall the movement makes a strong impression, as does the whole quartet. It’s not Grieg at his best, perhaps, but it’s an unusual side of Grieg that can be celebrated.
Svendsen’s 1866 Octet, written under the influence of the Leipzig school represented by Mendelssohn’s successors Ferdinand David and Carl Reinecke, is a more polished work but also less demanding on both performers and audience. A sunny and genial piece, it usually seems to get that kind of performance. At least that’s what I hear in my mind, thanks to the recording I’m most familiar with by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos. The performance from the combined Kocian and M. Nostitz Quartets seems tinged by some of the intensity that the Kocians brings to the Grieg Quartet. There’s more fire in the Octet than I’m used to hearing, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different. If you have no preconceptions, this may be the way you’ll prefer hearing Svendsen’s piece. If you don’t know it, I think you’ll admire it in either of the performances I’ve mentioned.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to listen to this Praga Digitals recording in SACD; for whatever reason, my rig wasn’t able to deal with it at the moment. That happens—rarely, but it happens. I’m not sure whether it’s a problem with my player, the SACD processing itself, or a combination. In any event, the sound in standard stereo was full and rich, close but not unduly so, with a wide sound stage. If the pairing appeals—and it does to me—then you should be happy with this recording.
— Lee Passarella

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