Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) owes his present-day fame primarily to such compositions as the incidental music for Ibsen's Peer Gynt, the Piano Concerto in A minor, op.16 and the Holberg Suite in its popular version for string orchestra. Yet, the Norwegian musician built his international career mainly on the strength of his chamber works: the Sonatas for violin and piano (the first of which won him the valuable esteem of Liszt, who became an active promoter of Grieg’s career from the early 1870s), and, even more importantly, the ample collection of Lyriske stykker (Lyric Pieces), which he composed almost throughout the entire span of his career, from 1867 (op. 12) to 1901 (op. 71).
His focus on chamber music and, in particular, on short intimate forms is truly unique for a composer in the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Grieg had the rare merit of realizing his own shortcomings in the field of symphony and big orchestra composition very early on in his career. He wrote just one symphony (at the age of twenty-one, after completing his studies), and even went so far as to add the following annotation to the manuscript: ”Never to be performed". No wonder most critics tend to agree that the vital part of Grieg’s inspiration lies in the realm of miniatures, his delicate, poetic, musical evocations of sensations, images and landscapes, which are often enlivened by the intonation and pace of Scandinavian folk dance.
The Lyriske stykker are a total of 66 pieces, divided into ten collections (op. 12, 38, 43, 47, 54, 57, 62, 65, 68, 71). The selection included on this CD represents almost a third of the entire corpus, which opens with the celebrated Arietta op.12 n.1 and ends with Efterklang (Remembrances) op.71 n.7, in which Grieg adopts the innovative procedure of citing the inception of the series, the delicate Arietta melody, transforming it into a haunting, nostalgic waltz. With the end touching the beginning, the composer brings the period of the Lyric Pieces to a close and in so doing concludes the most extensive and varied phase of his career. It is no coincidence that, in the opinion of many scholars, his next opus, the Slåtter (Norwegian Folk Dances) op.72, opens a new and conclusive stylistic phase that in some cases even prefigures Bartók.
The overall title of the collection, denoting its “lyric” character, clearly emphasizes its relationship with voice and vocal writing. There is a clear influence of Mendelssohn’s Songs without words (Grieg had, after all, studied at the Leipzig conservatory founded by Mendelssohn himself). Grieg’s collection, however, is less consistent in this respect: the novelty of Felix Mendelssohn's writing lay in his attempt to simultaneously render singing and piano accompaniment on the keyboard (through the illusionistic "three hands" effect), and he even wrote Duets in which two voices, in two different registers, were simulated together with the piano accompaniment. Although Grieg’s tribute to Mendelssohn is beyond question, he is more interested in the evocative and descriptive potential of the piano than in the songful nature of the pieces or the relationship between vocal line and accompaniment. Indeed, most of the Lyric Pieces have “descriptive” titles, whereas this is rarely the case for Mendelssohn’s Songs. Here, Grieg possibly reveals his love for the music of Schumann, another great composer active in Leipzig. The descriptive element is actually much less pertinent than many titles would suggest (as often the title has no definite connection with the music), but, undoubtedly, it is one of the reasons for the popularity of these pieces.
As for the overall content of the collection, Grieg’s inspiration can be seen to fall into a few broad categories. Apart from the pieces carrying generic titles such as Arietta, Melody, Nocturne, Waltz, the first large group comprises works with a popular and "national" character: dances, festivities, and typically Norwegian, or more generally Scandinavian, tunes. Pieces like Hjemad (Homeward) or the short Gangar belong to this group.
The second major category includes pieces evoking nature, a source of inspiration that was especially congenial to Grieg, as evidenced by the famous Morning Mood from Peer Gynt. Examples on this CD include several well-known pieces, such as Sommerfugl (Butterfly), Til våren (To Spring), Sommeraften (Summer’s Eve), Skogstillhet (Peace of the Woods).
A third category, which is also very typical of Grieg’s expressive world, comprises a wealth of grotesque and fantastic imagery (with dwarfs marching, gnomes dancing, rounds of elves, a whole repertoire of the fantastic creatures that populate Nordic and Scandinavian folklore). In this album, Småtroll (Puck) and Trolltog (March of the Trolls) are wonderful examples of the third group.
Grieg’s last vein of inspiration is the evocation of feelings and moods, often with remarkably suggestive titles: for instance Svunne dager (Vanished Days), For dine fötter (At Your Feet) or the concluding Efterklang, all featured on this CD (but the Lyriske stykker include even more original titles, such as Erotyk, op.43 n.5).
Without attempting to describe Grieg’s specific pianistic language and style, one cannot but emphasize the composer’s distinctive and neatly-profiled rhythm, and his renowned felicitous melodic and harmonic inventiveness. In this latter respect, Grieg’s mastery and elegance unsurprisingly blossomed over the years. Listening to the pieces in chronological order reveals a progressive refinement of detail and the proliferation of personal devices and idiosyncrasies which have justly become famous, such as the use of the augmented fourth or of fixed pedals creating drone effects. All this occurs within the context of short forms of exemplary clarity (often strophic, or following the classic ABA ternary form), which are immediately perceivable even at first hearing.
On this CD, Grieg’s better known production is combined with lesser-known compositions from other collections, such as the second and third of the brilliant, lively, and “frivolous” Norske danser op. 35 (Norwegian Dances) for piano for four hands, and the complete cycle of the Sex Sange (Six Songs), op.48 of 1889.
Grieg had a deep knowledge of the human voice - he had married an excellent singer, his cousin Nina Hagerup - and he composed lieder all his life. The Six Songs op.48, all on German texts (contemporary as well as classic – with works by Goethe and Heine – as well as a detour into Walther von der Vogelweide’s thirteenth-century idiom) clearly show the influence of Schumann, and also of Wagner (i.e. the nightingale in the fourth song and the refined chromaticism of the fifth). The most interesting pieces in the collection are probably the first and sixth, especially for the way in which the composer alters the predictability of the strophic form. The second piece, Dereinst, allows us a rare opportunity for a comparison with Hugo Wolf, as the text by Geibel (from Spanisches Liederbuch) was set to music by both composers in the same year, almost certainly unbeknownst one to the other. Wolf’s lied embodies a sense of solemnity, peace and contemplation which though being quite distant from Grieg’s usual delicate and intimate expressive world, clearly emanates from the Norwegian composer’s setting as well, and finds its fulfillment in Skogstillhet (Peace of the Woods) which closes the CD in a rarefied atmosphere of contemplation.