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Ibsen’s Peer Gynt paints a portrait of what he saw as the typical Norwegian: cowardly, individualist and an inverate liar. It was originally published as a Lesedrama, i.e. a play meant to be read, and therefore unplayable with its five acts lasting more than five hours, fifty or so characters and multitude of settings ranging from fjords to deserts. However, for all his faults Peer Gynt had much of the loveable rogue about him, and this, combined with the colourfulness of the story (trolls, an Arabian princess, storms at sea, etc.) and its philosophical elements, contributed to demands that the author should produce a stage version. In accordance with the theatrical custom of the times (1874), this meant not only shortening and adapting the play, but also commissioning incidental music. Ibsen turned to Grieg, whom he had met nine years earlier in Rome. Grieg accepted enthusiastically, collaborating closely with Ibsen. The play itself contains several songs and dances within its text; Grieg provided music for these, as well as substantial preludes and entr’actes setting the scene for the action about to take place, and passages evoking omitted text or heightening the drama. The premiere in 1876 was a huge success, and subsequent frequent revivals saw revisions of the score and additions to the music, often entrusted by Grieg to Johan Halvorsen and involving the recycling of earlier Grieg compositions. It was not until 1988 that a reliable “authentic” performance edition of the score was established, based on the original score from 1876, but incorporating later improvements made by Grieg to the orchestration. The remaining obstacle facing any attempt to record the complete incidental music was the fact that much of the music makes no sense without the text of the play. The adaptation (by Alain Perroux) on this recording has neatly solved the problem by retaining some of the original dialogues and adding a third-person narration that enables the listener to understand what is going on. The songs and choral items remain in their original Norwegian, with Inger Dam-Jensen giving especially moving performances of Solveig’s music, ably joined by Dietrich Henschel as Peer Gynt and Sophie Koch as Anitra. The spoken parts (in English) are full of character, headed by Sir Derek Jacobi playing the Narrator and several minor characters. Alex Jennings is an appropriately folksy Peer Gynt and Haydn Gwynne plays a variety of female roles. The music itself plays a large part in the work’s dramatic impact, going far beyond the confines of the familiar orchestral suites yet displaying a great economy of writing in the way various motifs and themes recur. This hybrid of a production might sound a recipe for disaster, but that is not the outcome. As a basis for getting to know Ibsen’s play, it provides a useful introduction; as an opportunity to hear all the incidental music that Grieg wrote, in an appropriate context, it is both invaluable and highly enjoyable.
Reviewed by Anne McAlister