Rescuing Edvard Grieg from his own reputation might prompt one to ask "Oh, really?" The composer of
and his enormously popular
is one of the most often heard classical composers of all time. But Astral Artists, in the final concert of its season of recitals by young professionals, provided a platform for ideas that older musicians might not risk.
No question that pianist Ilya Poletaev had a point: Much Grieg is overlooked. The composer didn't help his two-hit-wonder reputation by leaving his opera unfinished, never really beginning his proposed second piano concerto, and giving some of his best efforts to vocal music in a difficult-to-sing hybrid Norwegian dialect.
Two other musicians were on hand Sunday at the Trinity Center for Urban Life: violinist Eunice Kim and soprano Yulia Van Doren, both with allegiances to the early-music world and the kind of pinpoint clarity of intent that goes with it, all the better to reveal Grieg's distinctive harmonic personality.
To tune one's ears in to the contrapuntal element of Grieg's music, Kim played a passacaglia from one of Heinrich Biber's Mystery Sonatas. From the choir loft Van Doren sang the "Mountain Song," the folk tune on which Grieg based his Ballade in the Form of Variations, played by Poletaev in a probing fashion that truly showed how the composer's mind worked. Most fascinating was the way Grieg left the tail end of the song as a separate episode, recurring like a ritornello from a Monteverdi opera in various states of transformation.
Thus Poletaev presented himself not as yet another brilliant young keyboardist but rather as an artist concerned with the total package, especially since the second half had him out of the spotlight in an accompanist's role with Grieg's mature song cycle Haugtussa Op. 67 and Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 8.
These were not great audience-pleasers. Van Doren used the language with great expressivity in the cycle, depicting a young girl's romantic heartbreak mirrored by the fairy world of Scandinavian mythology. Phrases cresting upward unexpectedly at the end showed her at her most comfortable. The sonata, an early work, wasn't as concentrated and frankly melodic as some later ones, with an interesting combination of Germanic logic (Grieg studied in Leipzig), Norwegian folk violin, a weird halting waltz here and an invasion of trolls there. The performance was nicely unvarnished. The kind of slickness often applied to Grieg clearly isn't the best way to know who the composer was.