This Naxos issue, recorded in 2009 and 2006 under a Norwegian conductor directing a Swedish orchestra, is devoted to arrangements of Grieg's music for string orchestra. Many of his compositions originally written for piano or chamber instruments either ended up arranged for the string section of a symphony orchestra or were written expressly for that; Grieg himself encouraged what we might call the Big Band Sound and often urged a "bigger the better" approach, naming 60 strings as being ideal. So there shouldn't be too much of a purist issue regarding whether music originally composed for the piano "ought" to be arranged in this manner.
Conductor Bjarte Engeset contributes a long and very informative essay in the CD notes.This is Volume 6 in the acclaimed Naxos "Grieg Edition": a compilation of Grieg's finest music for strings, reflecting his love of mountains, folk music, folk tales and all things Norwegian. Although Grieg's own voice is always his own, international influences resulting from his travels to Leipzig, Copenhagen and Rome and his exposure to Wagner's orchestration are clearly apparent. Debussy's oft-quoted aphorism that when listening to the "Lyric Pieces" "one has in one's mouth that bizarre yet delightful taste of pink bon-bons filled with snow" applies far more to this collection in general than to the arrangements of the string quartets. It is often assumed that Debussy's observation carried more than a hint of a sneer about it yet a more generous interpretation could embrace the idea that it conveys the cool, bracing streak in Grieg's music which offsets sentimentality. Certainly there is often a darkness or a melancholy about it which pulls at the heart-strings. The two concluding movements of the "Holberg Suite" are typical of the profound, elegiac quality Grieg can evoke through the simplest of means such as the dialogue between the upper and lower strings in the "Air" or the duet between solo violin and solo viola in the "Rigaudon", both exploiting the pathos of G minor. The words "lyric" and "elegy" are by no means antithetical in Grieg. The profound loneliness of a distant, keening oboe which begins "Evening in the Mountains" has something of the quality of the shepherd's cor anglais in the opening of "Tristan und Isolde". Grieg wrote in a letter to his biographer that the "essential feature of Norwegian folksongs...is a deep melancholy...mysterious darkness and unbridled wildness", qualities typified in the impassioned performance here of "In Folk Style", the first of the "Two Nordic melodies". Yet when Grieg is in pure pastoral mode, such as in the simple, beguiling melody of "Cow-Call", nothing could be more charming and insouciant.
The standard of playing is very high throughout. I prefer a little more pace and attack in the Prelude of the "Holberg Suite" but by and large everything - instrumental balance, phrasing, tempi and colouration - is judged to a nicety.
The sound quality, too, is exemplary; these days, especially where Naxos is concerned, it is rare for it to be otherwise. Even though it features mainly miniatures and music specifically orchestrated to fall pleasantly in the ear, this release amply illustrates the combination of rare and contradictory qualities which make Grieg Norway's greatest composer.