New Classical tracks : Norwegian dances

Album cover
Conductor Paavo Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra look across the Baltic in their latest recording.
Virgin Classics

He's an Estonian conductor who hangs his hat in his native country, his adopted home in Cincinnati and (next year) in Frankfurt. But lately Paavo Jarvi has been exploring his Norwegian soul. After a highly acclaimed recording of Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Jarvi has just added another Grieg CD to his discography, with the same ensemble. This one is devoted to the Norwegian master's orchestral music.

Grieg's orchestral music is special because he wrote it reluctantly. As a composer, Grieg focused on smaller works like songs and piano pieces, partly because he didn't think he could compete with the work of his colleague Johann Svendsen, the first Norwegian symphonist. Grieg highly admired his idol's gifts, declaring, "Svendsen has precisely all that which I don't have: mastery of the orchestra and its large classical forms." For that reason, Grieg limited himself to composing just 15 orchestral works. I, for one, am glad Grieg was brave enough to dip his toe in the orchestral waters.

Grieg originally wrote his Norwegian Dances for piano duet. He had hoped French composer Eduard Lalo would orchestrate them, but instead Hans Sitt, a member of the Brodsky Quartet, did the honors in 1888. Grieg based the first symphonic dance on a Scottish theme, with energetic sections that recall the sinister sound of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from his incidental music for "Peer Gynt." The other three dances are all hallings, a dance style that comes from the Hallingdal region of Norway. Each is based on a Scottish reel and they're written in double time.

I like these dances because they show Grieg's light-hearted nature, yet there's nothing frivolous about the complex harmonies, ingenious modulations and passionate melodies. The second in the set begins with a lazy bear's dance. It speeds up suddenly as the dancers try to outdo each other with animated leaps.

Paavo Jarvi's father, Neeme Jarvi, recorded the Norwegian Dances 20 years earlier with Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Paavo Jarvi may have followed in his father's footsteps, but he's not afraid to make his own musical statements. Where Neeme creates added dramatic effect with quick tempo changes, esthetic pauses and bold dynamic changes, Paavo goes for a brighter sound, and overall faster tempos. He prefers smooth, lyrical lines and he eases into his crescendos gradually.

Grieg believed the best medium for conveying deep emotion was the string orchestra, a belief that the music on this CD affirms. The familiar "Holberg" Suite contains emotion to spare. But to my ears, the most moving orchestral pieces are the four songs he wrote and later arranged for this kind of group.

Particularly beautiful are the earliest songs, Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 24. These are settings of melancholy poems by Aasmund Vinje. Grieg based each of them on a single melody, which then undergoes a series of subtle harmonic variations. Debussy once said it was this formula that elevated Grieg's music to a higher plane. The Elegiac Melody No. 2, titled "The Last Spring," was played at the composer's funeral. This piece is filled with a bittersweet nostalgia. It's very reminiscent of "Solveig's Song" from "Peer Gynt."

The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra has a big, unified sound that sweeps the listener along. We can hear individual instruments only when the score calls for that texture, like the romantic oboe line in the opening of the Symphonic Dance No. 2. The colors of various wind instruments rise above the orchestra on occasion, adding to the folksy feel of this music, helping to recreate the solitary, peaceful nature of Grieg's homeland.

Some friends of mine recently visited Grieg's home in Norway. They were glad they took the bus to Troldhaugen, because they were sure they would never have found it on their own. With this collection of Grieg's orchestral music, you don't need a map to get to where you want to go. Paavo Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra know just how to bring its simple beauty to you.