OLAV ANTON THOMMESSEN: Veslemoy synsk – Marianne Beate Kielland, mezzo-soprano/ Nils Anders Mortensen, piano – (Pure Audio Blu-ray + 2 SACDs), 125 minutes [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Garborg’s seminal poem Haugtussa (The Fairy Maid from Underhill) provided Edvard Grieg with fodder for his song cycle Haugtussasanger, but these eight songs provide only a sketch of the original story, choosing to focus on the relationship between Veslemoy and Jon, the two main protagonists. In fact this 309 page text is of epic proportions, and covers the gamut of human emotion, displayed in a series of smaller poems that constitute the whole. Grieg originally composed 20 different songs for the work, but in the end settled on eight. Composer Thommessen has reduced the text to some 30 pages, concentrating on what he feels is the main thrust of the story, and freely involved himself with not only Grieg’s final product, but with the songs he chose not to include, as well as his “Norwegian Folk Songs”, “Peasant Dances”, his chamber music and several of the lyrical pieces among other works. Thommessen has freely adapted, deleted, expanded, and followed it through the way Grieg did not. In his own words, he has “just taken the liberty of doing the work for him (Grieg).” He follows Veslemoy’s fate from “disturbed youth to lovesick young woman” and her consequent redemption after her trip through the underworld.
Does it work? Absolutely! I find nothing objectionable about what he has done here—much of Grieg is left virtually untouched, and there is nowhere that I detected the composer trying to “improve” on Grieg’s own writing, simply trying to use his work as a basis for completing what Grieg did not. The songs are wonderful, easily digestible with no sentiments of modernist abrasion—though much of the music is unmistakably modern—and he does a fine job of setting the stage for each of these poems.
But for a song cycle, 125 minutes is a little long. Not a little, a lot, and I found it fatiguing no matter how good the music. So conceptually maybe Grieg was on to something here and perhaps this is not the medium to use for such an undertaking. Nevertheless this is a comment only regarding length and not quality. Mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland is superb in this music as is partner Nils Anders Mortensen, and it had to be quite an undertaking. 2L’s sound, whether on Blu-ray or SACD is exquisite, even magnificent, and I detected virtually no difference in the formats, maybe a little more warmth in the SACD series but this is a real nit. [2L is the only label offering both audio-only Blu-rays and multichannel SACDs in the package of the same material; courtesy of assistance from the Norwegian government…Ed.]
I do have a quibble with the translation issue though. We are offered the old canard about Haugtussa being untranslatable and really understood by only those who speak Norwegian. I have never bought into that argument, no matter what the piece or what the language. We are given highly detailed synopses about each of the 45 songs, but for goodness sake man up and try to translate the thing—if you can give a synopses you can translate as far as I am concerned, and it would have given more of a flavor to the work.
If all of this interests you, there will be little to be disappointed with. I do think the length is an issue, and I know it would be difficult to sit through this in a concert setting. I will probably sample it piecemeal in the future, but the artistry is unquestioned.
Steven Ritter