Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor
Krystian Zimerman (Piano)
Berlin Philarmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Recorded 1981. Deutsche Grammaphon 439 015-2
Some composers seem to epitomise the spirit of their country – Chopin his suffering, heroic Poland, Debussy the sophisticated elegance of France… and Grieg the remoteness and magnificence of the mountain scenery of Norway. Writing during the latter half of the 19th century, at a time when Norway was something of a cultural backwater, he managed to create compositions with strong elements of Norwegian folk music which became very popular. This was the time when the main forms of home entertainment were centred round the piano. His songs and lyric pieces for the piano were not too difficult to perform, were highly individual, and carried his fame and that of Norway far and wide. His most famous work, however, is the Piano Concerto in A minor, written when he was 25.
Edvard Grieg was born in 1843 in Bergen, his father a businessman, his mother a piano teacher. After a violinist uncle (with the marvellous name of Ole Bull) heard his playing and his teenage compositions, he was sent at 15 to Leipzig to the finest musical school in Europe. After graduation in 1862, he lived and worked in Copenhagen, where he was inspired by fellow composer Rikaard Nordrack to work folk music into his compositions.
Returning to Oslo in 1866, he worked hard to earn a living playing and teaching music, and in 1867 married his cousin Nina, a fine singer. The Piano Concerto was written in 1868 while he was on holiday in Denmark. But recognition from other musicians and the public was slow to come – his music was considered rather adventurous and dissonant.
In 1870 he began a collaboration with poet and dramatist Bjornstjerne Bjornson, producing songs and choral works, and then worked with poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen. Grieg wrote music for Ibsen’s dramatic poem Peer Gynt, and from this made two orchestral suites, which today are among his most-played works.
Grieg would often escape to compose in a little isolated cabin in Ullensvang, in the Hardanger Fjord. A closer contact with nature and the magnificent scenery would be hard to imagine. In 1874 Grieg received an Artist’s Grant from the State, which meant he could keep himself and wife without needing to teach or conduct. But instead of releasing a string of masterpieces, this support heralded a period of personal and artistic crisis, from which he recovered slowly. In 1885 he and wife Nina moved to Troldhaugen, outside Bergen, which he continued to regard as his home until his death. However, he composed there mainly in the summer, setting off in the autumn on extensive concert tours throughout Europe. It was at the beginning of one of these in late 1907, when he was is still in Bergen, that his health finally collapsed, and Norway lost the composer who had made a huge contribution to establishing a national identity.
The opening to the Piano Concerto is dramatic, imposing – a drum roll, strong chords from the piano – as if you came round a corner, and suddenly saw the majesty of immense mountains sloping down into a fjord… but this at once gives way to a gentle little syncopated melody, as if the camera zoomed in on a folk dancing session. Then a romantic air is stated by the woodwinds, taken up by the strings and piano….. and this turns into a cheeky dance, before the camera pans out again to the stillness and remoteness of the mountains. The piano works this mood up to a strong climax, which brings in the village marching band – but this quickly fades way again to remoteness and stillness. Our melodies return in various guises, alternating between piano and orchestra, between a certain melancholy and a vision of grandeur. The cadenza for the piano, towards the end of the first movement, starts off very quietly, then reworks our original melody in the most bombastic and elaborate way possible, before fading down to bring in the orchestra again, sotto voce… and then the piano brings it all to an end.
The second movement Adagio has a lovely melody, like sitting atop a mountain in summer and contemplating a panorama of hills and valleys. After the orchestral opening, the piano comes in so delicately – not wanting to disturb – before leading a strong restatement of the theme, which quickly returns to quiet contemplation, fading into silence.
For the third movement we’re back at the village dance…. but after a whirl or two there comes again the remoteness and stillness of the flute in the high mountains. But do we stay there? Of course not, back to the dance, interweaving piano and orchestra, creating tension, reintroducing the theme, before opening out into a broad, strong finale.
Profound? Brilliantly elaborated orchestration? I would say neither – but in compensation, we have an immensely appealing mix of fine melodies, interesting rhythms, romantic passages from the piano – and above all a song of the scenery of a country. It is no surprise that this is one of the most popular pieces in the concert repertoire for piano and orchestra.
Herbert von Karajan (1908 – 1989) conducted the Berlin Philharmonic from 1955 until 1989, during which time an orchestra already famous achieved worldwide renown. Noted for the precision of its performances, the outstanding musicianship of the players, and the quality of sound, the orchestra recorded an immense range of music, being particularly noted for the interpretations of Beethoven and Brahms. Listening to this recording without knowing who it is, one would not go into such raptures, since there are some missed timings with the pianist, and it comes over as a professional job rather than a beguiling one. Pianist Krystian Zimerman from Poland and 25 at the time of the recording is obviously top-flight. I am particularly struck by the cleanness and precision of the chords and octaves – sometimes amazingly fast. But he also puts lots of space into the quiet passages, without becoming over-emotional.
So enjoy your musical trip to Norway, and….