MUSIC / Keeping it short and sweet: Anthony Payne on the RPO's Grieg celebrations at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
Grieg was unique among 19th-century masters of the lyrical miniature. Brahms drew upon his command of large-scale thought to produce a symphonic compression in many of his short pieces, while Schumann's and Chopin's in their very different ways are also rich in allusions to larger processes. In such company, Grieg can appear to unsympathetic ears to be structurally unadventurous and naive in expression, that is, until his peculiarly immediate use of harmonic texture is recognised for the forward-looking characteristic it is.

This Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of Grieg's birth, and a programme given in the Festival Hall, London, by the Royal Phiharmonic Orchestra under Per Dreier celebrated the poignant and always fresh vision of this consistently inspired tone-poet with a representative selection of pieces both big and small.

Grieg's music is far less often played in standard orchestral programmes than it once was, for in its great popularity it seems to have been moved sideways into the world of the 'pops' concert. So the serious concert-goer needs perhaps to be reminded of the fact that Grieg is not merely a catchy tunesmith and piquant harmonist, but a pioneer in the impressionist art of encapsulating time and emotion in a chord. Although rarely attempting the big symphonic statement, which was not really suited to his special vision, Grieg did achieve a remarkable rapprochement between sonata argument and lyric inspiration in the Piano Concerto. Rich in individual ideas which are related by feeling, and avoiding for the most part the sequential repetitions that in other works betray his unsymphonic mind, the Concerto always sounds fresh, and especially when treated without affectation, as here by the soloist Geir Henning Braaten. It is not a work that responds to the brash virtuoso who lacks confidence in its profound simplicity of utterance, and if on this occasion the finale's climaxes needed to explode more urgently, the work still sparkled with the freshness of mountain air and spring water.

Ironically, the Symphonic Dances, so called, are actually less symphonic than the Concerto, but the comparatively limited and repetitive materials are so enchantingly transformed by harmonic variation that our ears are constantly beguiled, and for all its over-reliance on rising sequences the final dance achieves a touching drama and grandeur, which Dreier and the orchestra characterised uninhibitedly.

The heart of Grieg, however, was revealed in the astounding Lyric Piece Bellringing and the Six Orchestral Songs. Bellringing could almost be by an experimentalist like Ives, and in the composer's emendation of Anton Seidl's orchestral version it makes a breathtaking impression, the superimposed open fifths and orchestrated resonances capturing a unique visionary moment. The songs, too, generate an incomparable intensity of emotion through harmonic means, and include in 'Spring', 'Solveig's Song' and 'Cradle Song' three of the 19th century's greatest lyric expressions. They were sweetly sung by Anne-Margrethe Eikaas, and while her lower register lacked strength her simplicity of delivery seemed the very embodiment of Grieg's world of feeling.

Finally we heard the world premiere of an orchestration of Grieg's Norwegian Bridal Procession by the young Delius, most influenced by Grieg's harmonic language. Although lacking the adroitness Delius later commanded, the arrangement possesses poetic insight, and made a fascinating addition to the programme.

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