MUSIC / Folk hero: Meredith Oakes at the Barbican's Grieg weekend

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Big event of the Barbican's Grieg anniversary weekend was a return visit by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra with a rerun of the Peer Gynt that was such a success last year in the centre's Tender Is the North festival. Ibsen used folklore in his play more for its mythic properties than for quaint local colour. But because he did use it, his difficult individualist odyssey was appropriated as a festive repository of national sentiment, a transition only helped by the exquisite pastels of Grieg's incidental music.

Everything about Friday's performance was beautifully done except the text, rendered in English verse with a faded cheekiness familiar from bad opera translations. The message to the chortling audience was clear: it really doesn't matter what it's supposed to be about; this is an international occasion; this is a party. Extracts from the play led into each piece of music, and chorus scenes were performed with histrionic relish by the Tallis Choir. The actors (Gerard Murphy charismatic) trod the line between character and compere as tactfully as they could. The orchestra under Neeme Jarvi delivered Grieg's Russian colours with Scandinavian poise, and among the singers Der-Shin Hwang was a discovery as Anitra.

Grieg, most sensitive of orchestrators in Peer Gynt, doubted his own powers and revised his 1872 Piano Concerto continuously. Hearing the smaller original version in its UK premiere early on Friday evening made one wonder why. Its lyrical continuity was charming and persuasive: and the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra played wonderfully for Janos Furst. The soloist, Leif Ove Andsnes, had huge accurate hands and a huge sound: he is an exciting addition to the piano firmament.

Some of the Grieg Weekend's highlights were pieces not by Grieg: two Schnittke works with Grieg affiliations were excellently played by the Guildhall Orchestra. The ballet score Epilogue from Peer Gynt, for orchestra and tape, blasted off in a chain of rising, thickening chords and landed in a world of heavenly choirs and scalic meditations on C major. The short Hommage a Grieg laid a divergent violin solo over a Grieg folk melody.

In St Giles Church on Saturday it was a pleasure to encounter Bit 20 playing contemporary music with enormous flair. Onda di Ghiaccio, a premiere from the Oslo composer Rolf Wallin, was a delicate, intricate mobile featuring curlew-like sliding motifs. Arne Nordheim's Magic Island worked an incantatory spell with two voices, miscellaneous glittery ensemble and echo-laden tape. A terrific, exuberant performance by Felicity Palmer of Berio's Folk Songs was a hit. Put together for Cathy Berberian, the songs come from all over the world but are united by their irreverent, minor-key ferocity and by Berio's wonderfully unobtrusive, wildly lateral thinking. Ingar Bergby conducted.