Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt a choral blockbuster ? Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted Grieg's full incidental music to Ibsen's play with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, showing how the choral sections make a difference to the way the drama is received. Peer Gynt is so well-known through extracts that the original context is lost. Not a fjord in sight, except in a metaphorical sense. Peer Gynt isn't a hero. Ibsen's original as a Leseopera, an opera to be read and meditated upon, not "just" entertainment. He satirized aspects of Norwegian mentality in the period when the country was a colony of Denmark. Peer's adventures are fraught with danger, supernatural as well as physical, The innate tension between moments of beauty and wildness creates a dynamic which is fundamental to interpretation.
Gražinytė-Tyla's approach brought out the power that lies beneath the surface : a vivid reading, bristling with energy. Not for nothing does Grieg's wedding procession end with ferocious chords. Peer disrupts proceedings and gets kicked out for fighting. Thus the first chorus with its almost primitive savagery : the subconscious being released. Congratulations to the CBSO chorus (chorus master Julian Wilkins) showing their metttle. Indeed, this whole programme focusssed on choral music though no doubt the media will think in more simplistic nationalist terms. Thius does matter, since Gražinytė-Tyla has a choral background and is in an ideal position to build on CBSO's reputation for choral music of all kinds.
Having established the drama, Gražinytė-Tyla could focus on the interplay between expansive lyricism and more unusual forms, from the "barbarism" of the Hall of the Troll King to the exoticism of the Arabian dances. In the Abduction of the Bride, the chorus led into Ingrid's Lament with soloist Klara Ek, and the Death of Åse prepared the way for Solveig's Song : both expressions of love and loss. In Peer's Homecoming, the CBSO played with strong definition so the obvious imagery (a ship on the sea) seemed enhanced by forces beyond Nature. The Whitsun hymn, sung right afterwards, indicates that this conflation of inner and outer worlds is no accident, but central to meaning. Peer lives in the world of the imagination, feckless until he comes to appreciate true values. Thus the finale, when Klara Ek, the soloist, the chorus and orchestra come together in glorious balance.
The programme began with neither conductor nor orchestra but with the City of Birmingham Youth Chorus in Esa-Pekka Salonen's Dona Nobis Pacem (2010) a five minute a capella miniature. Salonen plays with chords and textures, the three words of the text repeated in undulating cadence, the last notes held until they dissolve in silence. Because it's so minimal, careful modulation like this is of the essence. The freshness of these young voices connected well to Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, where recorded bird song replaces chorus. The orchestra reacts and responds, gradually coming into its own : long, searching lines, suggesting distance, flutes singing together as if they were birds. A cello sings, its melody enhanced by the cries of birds. For a moment, the orchestra falls silent, "listening" to birdsong before embarking on long, surging lines that expand, flutes in full flight, low voiced winds adding depth, until the music disappears beyond audibility. These two pieces combine extremely well. In both cases the performers must be listeners, sensitive to the subtlest nuance.
Back to more conventionally choral chorus with Jean Sibelius's Rakastava (The Lover), op 14 (1912). More thoughtful programming from Gražinytė-Tyla, the minimal accompaniment reflecting the delicacy in Salonen and Rautavaara. The men's voices dominate at first - the cycle was originally scored for unaccompanied male voice - but the women's voices enter with brighter, brisker figures until both reach parity. Yet again the value of sensitive singing, hushed but precise. Sibelius En Saga op 9 (1892) was also played well, (great solo moments !), Gražinytė-Tyla conducting with the clarity that brings out structure and detail.