GRIEG Piano Concerto (Bavouzet)
What could be more authentic than the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra performing Grieg – a composer with whom they had a close relationship (he was even briefly their artistic director)? This is their first exploration of the composer with their current chief conductor Edward Gardner and though it’s an unusual coupling, it makes sense to bring together Grieg’s most popular works.
The use of a Hardanger fiddle is a neat touch (something that Neeme Järvi does use, while son Paavo Järvi does not). The instrument connects Grieg to his folk roots and it’s superbly played on this new set by Håkon Høgemo. Gardner is certainly alive to the drama of the tale and his ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ is superbly caught by Chandos’s engineers. Paavo Järvi opens this number more ruminatively but his accelerando is thrilling and the voices add a rabble-like clamour to the climax. The ‘Death of Åse’ is another key moment in the drama and here Gardner is particularly magical in the way he melds the string lines, starting with minimal vibrato before becoming more ardent. Gardner’s reading is peppered with such touches – the switch in mood from the ‘Abduction of the Bride’ to ‘Ingrid’s Lament’ (from Act 2) is masterly, while the ‘Morning Mood’ that opens Act 4 attains a refreshing simplicity hard to achieve in such well-known music.
While the choral element is one of the new recording’s strong suits, the soloists are a little more variable. In the Anitra of Lise Davidsen Gardner has chosen well, her creamy mezzo altogether more alluring than the edgier Charlotte Hellekant for Paavo Järvi. ‘Solveig’s Song’ is always a test point: Neeme Järvi has Barbara Bonney absolutely in her prime; Camilla Tilling for Paavo Järvi is just a degree less effortless, though her clear tone is a delight; for Gardner we have Ann Helen Moen, who is touching but doesn’t sound quite as confident in the prevarication between sadness and playfulness. But my biggest question mark is over Peer Gynt himself: Johannes Weisser simply sounds too light a baritone for the part, whereas Peter Mattei for Paavo Järvi is altogether more commanding. That said, the closing number of the Chandos set is a highlight, Gardner drawing the music out with all the time in the world, against which his Solveig sings her cradle song with great sincerity.
In the Piano Concerto, Gardner brings to the table flair, drive and an almost Tchaikovskian lushness to the string sound, which matches well Bavouzet’s commanding manner in the piano’s opening flourish. But there’s also a sense of playfulness, for instance in the scampering passagework that follows (at 1'40"), not to mention some fabulous flute-playing (4'18").
It’s a more overtly ‘symphonic’ reading than the superbly lithe one from Howard Shelley (one of my favourites among modern-day recordings) with the Orchestra of Opera North. Bavouzet bewitches in the slow movement, not just in the clarity of his lines but also in the sense of ebb and flow (soloists must love Gardner for his empathetic support); and while no one can spin a slow melody quite like Lipatti, Bavouzet is whirlingly virtuoso in the finale. That said, for me Shelley, with his slightly more pared-back strings and full-on wind and brass, is still more thrilling here. Let’s hope that this is the start of a Grieg series for it promises much.