Edvard Grieg never did leave a definitive version of his incidental music for Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. The pity is that the power of the music cannot be quite appreciated out of context. Individual movements make fine concert pieces, but heard in dramatic context they make even more sense. For his concert of the complete incidental music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers at the Barbican on Saturday 15 December, Mark Minkowski chose to present the music with a stripped down version of Ibsen’s play created by director Alain Perroux. Young actors from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama performed the play in English, whilst three distinguished Scandinavian singers (Miah Persson, Ann Hallenberg and Johannes Weisser) sang Grieg’s solo music for Anitra, Peer Gynt and Solveig in Norwegian, with singers from the BBC Singers taking smaller sung roles. The result could have been a bit of a muddle, but in fact it was magical and a dramatic revelation.
The version performed of the music was the edition by Finn Benestad from 1988, which keeps the order of the composer’s score from the premiere performance of 1876, omits the cuts and amendments from later performances, but does include corrections and uses Grieg’s fuller orchestration from the 1886 performances in Copenhagen.
Mark Minkowski is best known for his performances of French baroque music and Offenbach, though his recent Schumann symphony series has been gaining plaudits. In 2010 he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme which paired Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. His performance of Grieg’s music had none of the stylisation which I associated with period performance specialists working with a modern orchestra. Instead he elicited from the orchestra a performance of freshness, vitality and clarity.
What Minkowski removed was the layer of Romantic gloop which can overlay this warhorse. In fact, Grieg’s music uses a variety of forces from a single violin solo emulating the traditional Hardanger fiddle through to moments with full orchestra and chorus, though the use of full orchestra was quite sparing. The composer had a very nice ear for orchestral timbres, and Minkowski brought this out. The orchestration was vivid and varied with great use made, in various ways, of the four horns.
Grieg wrote a series of small numbers, there are no really big extended musical pieces. But the small moments build into bigger dramatic structures when combined with the drama, and Grieg used thematic links too. The music that opened the Arabian scenes in act 4, the famous Morning Mood contains very distinct echoes of the music for the scene the girl in green in act 2, implying that wherever Peer Gynt is, he takes Norway with him.
Many of the small orchestral moments would get lost in a pure concert and they did contribute to the drama immensely. The way small musical elements could point up the text was a revelation. The well known movement, "Ase’s Death" was used both as a prelude to the scene of Peer’s mother’s death, but also repeated to underscore the dialogue between her and Peer in a way which rendered the drama even more poignant.
The way Grieg constructed large scale scenes is best seen in the scene in the hall of the King of the Trolls. The well known "In the Hall of the Mountain King", complete with a lively chorus part (of bad-tempered Trolls) led into a scene which mixed speech and music, including a grotesque dance for the King’s daughter. It ended with Peer Gynt fleeing, to music in which Grieg distorted the opening music, thus creating a larger and very satisfying musico-dramatic structure. Something similar is seen with the Arab scene, where a series of movements including the well known "Anitra’s Dance" and Peer’s serenade (the only time the character is required to sing) form another linked musico-dramatic whole.
The young actors were all miked, so that balance was always correct in the many melodramas. Patrick Walshe McBride was brilliantly charming as an Irish Peer Gynt, making a complete, entrancing character out of the fragments of the play allotted to him, holing us in the palm or his hand and being the focus of the drama for the whole piece. Grace Andrews played the women in Peer Gynt’s life, the Girl in Green (the daughter of the King of the Trolls), Solveig and Anitra , giving each a nicely differentiated shading. Cormac Brown was a lively King of the Trolls and other characters, Melanie Hislop had a nice nagging edge to her delivery as Ase, Peer Gynt’s mother. Tom Lincoln played all the strange characters; the Boyg (the obstacle Peer Gynt encounters), the passenger and the button moulder (the messenger of death). Apart from McBride, accents were a bit variable but all created a real feeling of drama, helped by the poised narrations of Evelyn Miller.
The smaller vocal roles were all taken by members of the BBC Singers. Micaela Haslam, Alison Smart and Olivia Robinson were cow girls calling for their Troll lovers in a beautiful little number. Andrew Rupp and Charles Gibbs were a fence and a thief in a tiny duet.
Soprano Ann Hallenberg sang the Arab maid Anitra, effectively a single solo, and tenor Johannes Weisser had a similar cameo appearance in Peer Gynt’s serenade. Frankly this was rather luxury casting and seemed an extravagance; though it was lovely to hear Weisser’s genuine Norwegian tones in the serenade. Where this luxury paid off was in the casting of Miah Persson as Solveig, singing Solveig’s Song and Solveig’s Cradle Song. Both dramatically necessary, and with Persson contributing singing that was extremely fine indeed. Her account of Solveig’s Song was profoundly beautiful, but when it was repeated, with hushed strings and with Persson off stage in a scene where Peer Gynt is hesitating outside her cottage, then the result was pure magic. The evening closed with Persson’s touching account of Solveig’s Cradle Song.
The entire performance was something of a revelation. Dramatically it worked with Grieg’s music and Ibsen’s words combining into a fascinating whole
This performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 iinternationally, online and on demand for seven days from Sunday 23 December 2012
The performance from Minkowski, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers had a freshness and a new minted quality which made you realise quite why Grieg’s score made such a big impression at its first performances.