Being Edvard Grieg

There is a scene in Jean Cocteau’s 1949 Orphée where the hero dons special gloves and walks through his bedroom mirror as though it were water. It is one of the most eloquent special effects in cinema history, all the stronger for the fact that it draws on a much earlier myth.

At some point or other, all of us want to be Orpheus – to go back through the fabric of time, to return to something that was lost. It is no coincidence that the mythological Orpheus was a musician. Music often seems to have a special power over time. Anyone who has ever loved the music of a dead composer will have wanted to be able to turn back the clock and find out how it really sounded in the time of Bach, Mozart or Monteverdi.

One rainy November in Bergen, I was able to do exactly that. The little home of Troldhaugen, where composer Edvard Grieg lived overlooking Lake Nordås, is kept exactly as it was during the composer’s life. His 1892 Steinway still stands among his paintings in the wooden-walled living room, next to the museum where his music and his toy frog are preserved for posterity.

In this room, when I visited back in 2007, two men were busy turning back time. British recording producer Tony Harrison and Norwegian pianist Sigurd Slåttebrekk had embarked on a project that would draw them in to such a level of obsessive perfectionism that it would take them years to complete.

This Christmas, a parcel arrived in my mailbox. When I held the Simax Classics Chasing the Butterfly CD in my hands at last, I had a smaller sense of time travel, back to that rainy Bergen afternoon at home with Edvard Grieg.

For more than four decades, musicians of our time have been influenced to varying degrees by the trend of historically informed performance practice. By studying the sources and using the instruments of a particular period, they try to come closer to the way particular composers might have heard their own music. But we can never know how it really was.

Or can we? In the case of Grieg, according to Harrison and Slåttebrekk, we can.

Grieg left us nine gramophone recordings, made in Paris in 1903. These became the source for a revelatory exploration. Until recently, Grieg’s recordings were regarded at best as highly unreliable sources. Tempi are erratic, cuts or embellishments extensive, pitch variable. Beneath all the surface noise, it is still possible to tell that the composer does not play anything like the notes in his own scores. Perhaps he was just too old to get it right.

Perhaps, argued Harrison, he knew exactly what he wanted. Perhaps what we hear on the recordings is an exquisite rendition of the way this kind of music was once played. And perhaps that is so different from the way we play and listen now that a genuine rediscovery would be like a journey to a strange planet.

“You are absolutely right to be amazed that I am still giving concerts,” Grieg wrote to Oscar Meyer in 1906. “ ... “To perform in public is the most frightening thing I know. And yet to hear my works brought to life in a wonderful performance in accordance with my intentions – that I cannot resist.”

And so Harrison, who harbours a lifelong fascination with old recordings, embarked on a project to reconstruct Grieg’s playing to the point that it was comprehensible for the modern listener. Digital remastering, he decided, would not do.

“When you first listen to it, all you hear is noise. There are various software solutions for noise reduction. But in the end, you can’t have your cake and eat it. When you take out noise, you also take out tiny bits of information, and it’s incredible how sensitive we are to that kind of information. The best computer we have is the human brain. So I decided to find a low-tech solution to a complex problem.”

In an age before mechanical repetition, before constant noise, before continuous acceleration, did people have a different sense of time? Grieg’s playing is a glimpse of an utterly different approach to sound in space. Pianists today are nowhere near as free with tempi, as improvisatory yet structured, as subtle.

In order exactly to recreate the way that Grieg played his own music, Harrison needed a pianist with a high level of virtuosity, an open mind and absolutely no ego. He found one in Slåttebrekk, who had retired from public life 10 years earlier, at the age of 28. But he had never stopped playing, and was intrigued enough by Harrison’s project to put several years of his life into it.

To recreate Grieg’s shimmering chords, Slåttebrekk had to work on loosening his joints and creating a new style of technical suspension. From the beginning, there was never the slightest room for his own personality or expression in the project.

“The internalisation of his performance strategies is the major thing,” he says. “I made myself an instrument – a medium. At times, I felt totally imprisoned by Grieg, and it almost drove me mad.”

Several thousand takes later, by a phenomenally arduous process of minutely copying Grieg’s playing from the original recordings, the two men have arrived at a result so like the original that the two recordings can be played simultaneously to sound like one.

In an extra track on their CD, they do exactly that, cutting from Grieg to Slåttebrekk and back between bars. The only difference between the two men is the static crackle behind the dead composer’s playing. The effect is as eerie as Cocteau’s melting mirror.

Harrison speaks of “a Frankenstein level of editing”. It is the closest thing to magic you are ever likely to hear on a CD, a trick of splicing time that truly seems to awaken the dead.

Chasing the Butterfly, to be released in the UK at the end of this month, is one of the most fascinating explorations of recorded sound I have ever encountered. It comes just three years too late for the 100th anniversary of Grieg’s death. But what, after all, is time?

The implications of the project are huge. Grieg studied in Leipzig. His playing is the most direct link we have with the German romantic piano tradition. At the thought of Leipzig, Harrison’s eyes light up.

“Have you heard the Brahms cylinder recording?” he asks. “Fifty-nine seconds. You can barely hear that there is a piano there. That will be our next project!”

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