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Hyperion Records

CDA67117 - Grieg: String Quartets
CDA67117

Recording details: December 1998
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: September 1999
Total duration: 64 minutes 16 seconds

'In the hands of the Chilingirian these works receive their best possible advocacy. Superbly played' (Classic CD)

'High-class playing and recording' (Gramophone)

'In every way a thoroughly worthwhile issue' (Classic FM Magazine)

String Quartets
Adagio  [6'09]
Allegro giocoso  [3'24]

Franz Liszt, writing about Grieg's String Quartet No 1, declared: 'It is long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg'. Grieg himself said that his quartet ' … aims at breadth; to soar, and above all at a vigorous sound for the instruments for which it is written.' In 1891, Edvard Grieg started his second quartet, but sadly lacked inspiration and time to finish the last two movements. Levon Chilingirian of the Chilingirian Quartet has studied the original manuscripts of the first two movements (which have many clarifying instructions added by Julius Röntgen in preparation for their printing by C F Peters in 1908) and prepared the third and fourth movements especially for this recording. This is therefore a first recording of the completed String Quartet No 2.


After busy years in Oslo, teaching and conducting to make a living, Edvard Grieg and his wife Nina left for Hardanger in 1877. In the course of a couple of years there he wrote several masterworks, among them the String Quartet No 1 in G minor. On hearing Grieg’s quartet, Franz Liszt declared: ‘It is a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg.’ The musical language is rather radical, and in many ways Grieg’s quartet is a bridge between the late Beethoven quartets and Debussy’s quartet, composed fifteen years after Grieg’s.

Working hard to find a thematic and formal framework, Grieg decided to build the whole quartet on the melody of his Ibsen song Spillemaend (‘Minstrel’, Op 25 No 1), which underlies all four movements. The opening motive (octave falling to major seventh then fifth) is also predominant in, among other things, the A minor Piano Concerto. This motivic core pervades the entire quartet, binding it together to form a composite whole, from the dramatic G minor introduction of the first movement to the entrancing final G major of the last. This conceptual unity in the shape of a cyclic melodic idea did not originate with Grieg—it was a technique often used by Liszt, for instance—but Grieg made more consistent use of it than was usual in chamber music at that time.

The thickness of sound in Grieg’s quartet is striking: it has an unorthodox richness of texture that verges on the orchestral, using fortissimo double-stopping in several instruments simultaneously. The composer has been criticized for this, but he himself said that his quartet was not designed to ‘peddle occasional flashes of brilliance’. He continues: ‘It aims at breadth, to soar, and above all at a vigorous sound for the instruments for which it is written.’ Furthermore, the quartet is unconventional in its markedly homophonic style, although there are polyphonic passages that prove that Grieg was also a master of this technique.

During the winter of 1891 Grieg lived in Copenhagen, and his main intention was to compose; but he felt miserable, both for his lack of artistic ability and for the absence of artistic inspiration in Copenhagen. ‘It is a period of decadence and decline’, Grieg wrote in a letter to Frants Beyer in January 1891. ‘There is nothing inspiring or stimulating. No. Give me peaceful nature instead! It speaks more and better than these prattling, petty people … The music I settle on one day I tear out of my heart the next, for it is not genuine. My ideas are bloodless, just as I am, and I am losing confidence in myself.’ But in March 1891 he wrote again to Beyer: ‘I have written two movements of a string quartet. Of course, it was supposed to have been completely finished down here. But … I’m going to Oslo in April.’

After leaving Copenhagen Grieg never again had the time or the peace necessary to finish this work, the String Quartet No 2 in F major. For the rest of his life we can see that his conscience was troubled by this unfinished music—‘that accursed string quartet which constantly lies there like an old Norwegian cheese’ (letter to Brodsky, 1895).

In 1903 Grieg wrote to the Leipzig publishers Peters: ‘You probably remember me mentioning an unfinished string quartet? I had intended to finish it, but these last years have brought so much, both physically and spiritually, that I wasn’t motivated to proceed with this cheerful work—quite the opposite of opus 27. But I hope to find the long-sought tranquillity and inclination this summer.’ Then in 1906, just a year before his death, he wrote to Brodsky: ‘If only I could at least finish the string quartet for you!’ In 1907, at the time of his death, there were still only two movements and some sketches for the rest. The following year Grieg’s Dutch friend, Julius Röntgen, acquired the manuscripts from Grieg’s wife, Nina, and edited the first two movements for Peters.

Röntgen also arranged a special ‘premiere’ of the String Quartet in F major in his home. In a letter to Nina Grieg, dated November 1907, he wrote: ‘You should have been with us last evening! We played the quartet. It was strange to sit there and realize that now it was being heard for the first time, and that Edvard himself never got to hear it. But now you must hear who made up the quartet. It was unusual. Harold Bauer, the great pianist, played first violin and really did a fine job. Pablo Casals played second violin and held the violin between his legs just like a cello. I played the viola, and Mrs Casals played the cello in a remarkable way. All four of us were filled with the greatest excitement—with my wife as the only audience!’

Subsequently, this unfinished quartet was not often played publicly, but in 1996 the Chilingirian Quartet performed it during a tour of Norway. Visiting Bergen, Levon Chilingirian had an opportunity to visit the Grieg Collection and see the original manuscript and sketches. He noticed several changes that Röntgen had made in his edition. Since then, Mr Chilingirian has re-edited the first two movements and made performing versions of what was written of the third and fourth movements. The version recorded on this disc is as close as we can get to what Grieg intended.

Erling Dahl Jr © 1999

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