Percy Grainger/Kristiansand Symfoniorkester: Grieg - Piano Concerto [Blu-ray Audio]
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The magic of a 'time machine' brings Percy Grainger's original performance back to life in this modern surround-sound recording with the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rolf Gupta. Edvard Grieg himself bears witness to the validity and authenticity of Grainger's interpretation through his own enthusiastic endorsement: 'I had to become sixty-four years old to hear Norwegian piano music interpreted so understandingly and brilliantly. He breaks new ground for himself, for me, and for Norway. And then this enchanting, profound, serious, and childlike naturalness! What a joy to gain a young friend with such qualities!'
In 2007, conductor Rolf Gupta gave the first Norwegian performance of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor with the legendary Australian pianist Percy Grainger (1882-1961) as the posthumous soloist. On this recording, the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra accompanies Grainger's original and controversial interpretation of the concerto. In addition, the violinist Oyvind Bjora and pianolist Rex Lawson perform Grieg's Violin Sonata in C minor. The recording also includes a handful of Grieg's Lyric Pieces, performed by the composer himself. Astonishingly, these performances have not been available to the public until now.
Two different instruments have facilitated Grainger's and Grieg's encounters with the KSO/Gupta in modern times. Grainger plays on a form of musical time machine, the Duo-Art reproducing piano, which is something like an analogue predecessor of the computer, powered by an electric suction pump, and controlled automatically by perforated rolls of paper. Grieg, on the other hand, has been restored to life by means of a foot-pedalled pianola, played by Rex Lawson. For this recording, both instruments were fitted in front of a Steinway concert grand piano and re-performed the playing of Grainger in 1921 and Grieg in 1906.
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The first thing any audiophile would want to know is how does this relatively new format rate. Well, to my ears (and my hearing was recently tested very thoroughly, revealing no deterioration as youth has receded -- much to my great delight), this new format is even slightly better than the SACD (the Blu-ray disc is accompanied by an SACD, allowing perfect oportunities for comparison - and my Cambridge player plays SACDs as well as Blu-ray discs), which I had previously regarded as the best audio format. It has that same, smooth, analogue quality that was associated with the SACD, yet seems to be even more open and lifelike than any of the earlier formats. Recordings are mastered at three times the bit rate per channel compared to an SACD. To be precise, sampling rate is 24-bit at 350.8 kHz. This is then quantized appropriately for Blu-ray mastering, and and mastering for the accompanying SACD. The release offers several versions on the Blu-ray. For surround listening, there are two DTS HD versions, and in stereo, an LPCM 24-bit 192 kHz option.
The producers chose to make this an in-the-round performance, with the piano in front, and the Orchestra surrounding you. The sound is marked by its openness, clarity and wide range. If you can cope with being surrounded by the Orchestra, listening to this is a superb experience. And the performance is by Percy Grainger, whom Grieg regarded as the supreme exponent of this concerto.
Which brings to the technology of the performance. The cover is slightly misleading as it refers to a pianola re-performance. In fact the performance, whilst coming from a piano roll (actually, rolls), is from a Duo Art reproducing roll. The reproducing piano, was a development stemming from the original player piano or Pianola. Although these systems, and their non-compatible variants, needed constant careful maintenance, they were capable of reproducing, with extremely high precision, the pianist's original performance. So here we have the opportunity to hear Grainger's performance, as recorded on a Duo-Art music roll in 1921, re-presented in the very best of modern sound on a Steinway piano. And it is at this point, a weakness in this release becomes apparent.
The Duo-Art rolls are played on a version of the system that is contained in a cabinet which sits in front of the piano, with "fingers" protruding to play the keys, and a similar arrangement to operate the pedals. These players are called Vorsetzers, which I am told, roughly means "sitter in front of". This has the advantage that it can be placed at an excellent piano. Many reproducing pianos had the mechanism built in, and often, they were not in the best examples of the piano manufacturers art. After all, a reproducing grand piano cost roughly the equivalent of a medium house! Many recordings have been released with performances from sub-standard pianos, giving ill-founded doubts about the quality of reproducing systems.
The Vorsetzer in this case started its life as a Pianola, and was converted into a Duo-Art Pianola (as they were known for a short time). Although this conversion was done by experts, they didn't get things quite right. I am very familiar with this performance via a Duo-Art piano at the home of one of the world's top experts on reproducing pianos, and his Duo-Art (actually, more than one) was restored and maintained at absolute peak of performance. It is several years since I have heard the roll(s), but a Duo-Art player operating correctly reveals a more dynamic performance by Percy, a greater range between his very gentle playing, and the peaks he reaches in powerful climaxes than we hear in this recording. So, although most aspects of Grainger's playing are presented, unfortunately, the Vorsetzer gives the impression of a slightly more meek performance than Grainger actually gave. However, his playing, and what modern playing and score-reading practice consider his eccentricities (Grieg did not consider any were present in the reading) are still captured beautifully, and I am prepared to give the release the 5 stars because the overall result is so outstanding. Also because, we are hearing, generally speaking, an accurate re-creation of a typical performance of the period. Modern musicians are taught to play strictly to the score. If they were to make a more careful study of performance practice in the Romantic period, it was normal, and even expected, that a soloist would make his performance very much his own, with no hesitation to be free with rubato etc., and even to add extra ornamentation, especially in cadenzas, which often weren't even written into he score but left to the performer. Many concertos contain cadenzas that were not placed there by the composer, but by later pianists or editors.
The appropriately smallish orchestra is unknown to me, but provide an essentially flawless support to Grainger's performance, and allow us to hear the greatest exponent of yesteryear of this concerto in the very best sound possible, even though we don't hear the piano playing quite exactly true to life.
As this review is already too long, I am precluded from commenting on the other tracks, as although they are based on conventional Pianola rolls, in highly skilled hands (or should I say, feet) it is possible to produce a rather lifelike performance. On this recording, we get the very best of such handling of rolls recorded by Grieg himself.
In other words, we have a recording that is both exciting in its new technology, but also in the source of the performances of this popular concerto, and accompanying pieces. There is just one caveat. To appreciate this release, it is essential that your audio equipment is of very high standard. Earlier Blu-ray players, or cheaper units, especially if not connected via HDMI 1.3 cables, may not be able to handle the amount of data being transferred. But if you have a high-performance system, don't hesitate to buy, especially for the rare nature of the content of this release.
Recordings were heard via a Cambridge Audio 650BD player, NAD T785 7.1 channel amplifier, connected with high-quality, high-speed HDMI 1.3c cabling, and using a specialised custom-designed and built speaker system.
I had great expectations for the Blu-Ray Audio disc format, where only the sound matters.
I can say only the best about this records from the Norwegian 2L.
I heard a lot multichannel records, but the this is really awesome.
Puts you in the middle of holographic, precise and really high resolution music, without any claustrophobic and intrusive side effects.
And the best is that not tiring to listen. Additionally you get SACD too, which (as I heard, because i don't have SACD player now) is still good, but sounds a bit softer and less precise.
Now I have to start collecting them...
Equipment: H&K AVR255, Sony BDP-S360, Celestion (5 and 3) speakers, Acoustic Research Status Sub30
It is such a thrill to hear Grieg's concerto played the way Grieg enthusiastically endorsed it in Percy Grainger's extraordinary interpretation.
In the Grieg concerto Grainger reflects very much the late Romantic approach to music playing, with lots of rubato, rushing, and pianistic fireworks. The music sounds as Grieg has never sounded in more recent recordings.
And let me say, I do enjoy the performances of Lipati among several other brilliant recent virtuosi, but in my view and to my ear the fire in Grainger's playing is unequalled in anything of more modern vintage.
I won't comment on the technology of the recording. Just to say that it comes off extremely well.
I downloaded the entire album from another website for a total of about $10, much cheaper than buying the actual CD.