Sunday 16 December 2012

Peer Gynt at the Barbican

Henrik Klausen as Peer Gynt
in 1876
There never really was a definitive version Peer Gynt during Grieg's life-time. He didn't even attend the first performance in 1876 when his music was played with Ibsen's play for the first time. He was unhappy with the artistic compromises he'd had to make to satisfy the orchestra (a small pit-band of 35) and provide cheap theatrical effects. Some of the movements require a full romantic orchestra and it was only at the performances in Copenhagen 1886 that he was able to flesh out the orchestration for a full sized orchestra. But here the music included three of the Norwegian Dances, Op. 35 and the Norwegian Bridal Procession. Grieg himself continued to tinker with the music and there was never a complete edition published in his lifetime. It was, amazingly, only in 1988 that a definitive edition was produced. Musicologist Finn Benestad's edition restored the music to a state that never really existed. He used the order and content of that original 1876 performance, but with the Copenhagen orchestration and a few corrections Grieg made late. On disc, perhaps, a variorum approach can be usefully taken, but for his performances of the music in the dramatic context of Ibsen's play at the Barbican on 16 December 2012 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, conductor Mark Minkowski chose to use Benestad's edition, with actors from the Guildhall providing extracts from Ibsen's play directed by Alain Perroux.

Of course, its not actually a play at all. Ibsen wrote it simply to be read in 1867 whilst he was in Rome. He deliberately avoided the limitations of 19th century stagecraft and in fact rather struggled to turn the picaresque drama into a stage beast. In many ways the constant tinkering of Ibsen and Grieg in the work over the years, and the failure to find a definitive final version, rather remind you of Bernstein's struggles to turn another picaresque drama, Candide, into a stage drama. The play comes relatively early in the Ibsen canon, between Brand (1865) and Emperor and Galilean (1873), his later plays would develop the influence of the philosopher Kierkegaard rather more and it was not until 1879 with The Dolls House that we come to the plays which we recognise as typically Ibsen today.

Performed relatively complete, the Ibsen/Grieg Peer Gynt would be a long affair. The play is not short and Grieg's music lasts an hour or more. Though there are songs, they are not crucial except in one instance. Peer himself has a single short serenade, the Arab girl Anitra has a song, and then Solveig (Peer's girl back home) has her song. But only Solveig's song is of dramatic importance, and Solveig gets to close the play singing her cradle song to the old, broken Peer. There are in addition lots of incidental vocal episodes, such as cow girls singing to their troll lovers.

The Barbican performances were in some ways rather unlikely. The three main soloists were Norwegian or Swedish, they, the chorus and the minor soloists (from the BBC Singers) all sang in the original Norwegian (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are mutually comprehensible languages). The actors (all miked) spoke in English with Peer and his mother being given Irish accents (accents did rather come and go somewhat in some instances). The conductor was French, having made his name performing French baroque music and Offenbach, but now recording a notable Schumann series too.

But it worked. Part of me wanted the actors to be speaking Norwegian as well, but that would have put an extra layer of complexity into the matter. And, despite being familiar with concert versions of the play on disc, I still learned new things (that the Trolls lived on cow dung and drank piss for instance!). In many ways the play is completely weird, talking afterwards a friend wondered what Ibsen had been on when he wrote it.

The young man playing Peer (Patrick Walshe McBride) was outstanding. He developed a character out of fragments of the play, and for the first four acts was convincingly the charming liar, then in the final act where Ibsen gives Peer some rather wierd encounters and presages his death, McBride brought a gravity to it. But most of all he charmed us, and held the drama together; a career defining moment I think.

It seemed luxury casting to have the songs sung by Miah Perrson, Ann Hallenberg and Johannes Weisser, but it was brilliant having them sung by those who understand the language, there is a real melody and sound to the Scandiwegian languages when done properly. And, frankly, Persson's performance of Solveig's song and her cradle song were just perfect, well worth the entrance fee on their own.

Minkowski was a revelation, he made the music sound fresh and new minted, bringing a clarity to it which was worlds away from the old romantic war-horse. The friends we talked to afterwards, who had never come across the complete play found it put Peer Gynt into an entirely new light.

If you are interested in listening to the music in dramatic context then I can highly recommend the BIS CDs, which include a truncated version of the play, in the original language, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud (see the Amazon box below).

The Barbican concert will be broadcast by the BBC on Radio 3 Sunday 23 December at 2pm (and on the website for 7 days afterwards). Listen to it, you will be entranced.

A full review of the performance will appear on the Opera Today website in due course.

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