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Gimse and More Grieg

On a night that featured a showdown of two Grieg piano concertos, it seemed only natural to chose the all-Norwegian offering over the 2/3 French offering – especially since the latter program, at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra with Stéphane Denève conducting Jean-Yves Thibaudet, seemed only marginally more interesting. Not to pan Mr. Thibaudet (his Satie is very good!) but we also expected more from Håvard Gimse (with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)… that last bit of herring-flavored tinge in the performance, perhaps.

As you may have guessed, this was part of Norway’s busy 100 year independence celebration. Under the Norwegian ambassador’s auspices and with the anthems out of the way, the concert opened with music from Peer Gynt. Fine stuff, but once again I lament a missed opportunity to show that Norwegian music is so much more than just Grieg, Grieg, Grieg.

Conductor Bjarte Engeset is one of the products of the litter of Jorma Panula’s conducting class at the Helsinki Sibelius Academy, which has populated seemingly every second rostrum in the U.S. and beyond. (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Osmo Vänskä, Sakari Oramo, and Mikko Franck are only the more notable Panula students that come to mind.) The famous “In the Hall of the Mountain King” episode of Peer Gynt meanwhile turned out to be a bit of a thumpy Bolero-like ride that felt tantalizingly unsafe throughout. The side-drum thwacked away mightily – which has an even more bombastic effect in the acoustic of the Strathmore. The following “Åses død” was welcome respite, lushly played. A viola solo worthy of every viola joke ever made stood out negatively from an otherwise mellow and seamless, flowing performance. (That was not how a "Hardanger fiddle sounds, that was just the sound of bad viola playing.")

A couple hundred more audience members could have listened to Mr. Gimse’s rendition of the Grieg in the modestly filled hall. They would have heard a fair performance; well played but solidly in the realm of the ordinary – on both soloist’s and orchestra’s part. The Strathmore Steinway sounded congested and a tad brittle in the upper third of its range and only the softest of Gimse’s touches avoided that. In the finale Gimse and the BSO got a little momentum after all and brought things to a finish rousing enough to get the excitable audience on its feet. An encore was demanded and given – one of Grieg’s Lyrical Pieces, op. 54: III - Trolltog .

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E. Grieg, Piano Concerto, Symphonic Dances, Gimse, Engeset, RyScNO
Perhaps the oddest quibble – but it stood out to me like a sore thumb in part because of its subtle difference: Håvard Gimse’s distinctly blue-tinted black tails over the gray-black trousers of the kind that the rest of the orchestra wore uniformly. It has the same effect on me as that off-kilter brooch or half-tucked collar on a conversation partner. It arouses the most urgent need to correct it. I suppose there is a name for that… “OCD” – but I know I am not alone in this. Color-coordinated OCD sufferers are a faction surprisingly strong in numbers!

Håvard Gimse and Maestro Engeset have recorded the Grieg for Naxos - a very good recording, too - but our favorite these days features another Norwegian: Leif Ove Andsnes's recording with Mariss Jansons on EMI.

Repeat performances of the concert will take place at the Meyerhoff Concert Hall in Baltimore today - Friday at 8PM, tomorrow on Saturday at 8PM, and Sunday at 3PM.