As a rarity, the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnëv performed the complete music to Grieg’s Peer Gynt in the Tschaikowsky Hall tonight.
For this concert, we not only got the complete music, but also a literary reading. Aleksey Bruni crafted Ibsen’s story into Russian poetry, and did a reading, accompanied by the music. The portions of Ibsen’s original text that Grieg set to music (but which are normally performed these days – if at all – transcribed for instruments instead of sung) were restored to chorus and soloists.
Some of Grieg’s Peer Gynt music is well-known from the two suites that he prepared and which get performed frequently enough. Normally, the music, while pleasant, comes across disembodied and not necessarily dramatic. But putting the music back into a literary context, the music regains the drama it loses in the suites. The Russian National Orchestra, full of splendid musicians, captured the drama to the fullest. Bruni provided a lively and enthusiastic reading. The soloists, two young singers Anastasiya Byelukova (soprano) and Igor Golovatyenko (baritone), had large, clear, and pleasant voices which filled the hall nicely. And the chorus, from the Popov Academy of Choral Arts, also managed its way well through the Norwegian texts, blending its sound and boldness with the orchestra’s.
I probably would have appreciated this performance more if my Russian were good enough to fully understand more of the poetry. But I got the sense of the performance. I’m not convinced Grieg’s score is first-rate music drama, but hearing it in this context – more like its natural environment as incidental music to a drama rather than as isolated numbers in an orchestral suite – certainly added an extra dimension.
Considering the recent child-sex scandal at Penn State, I wondered whether I should patronize a concert conducted by Pletnëv. The Thai authorities dropped all charges against him, but there has still never been an explanation for what those young boys were doing at his home in Thailand (about which he claims ignorance). In the end I went to the concert, but Pletnëv still comes across as a seedy character.