Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor

In the right hands, a breath of Nordic fresh air.

Grieg’s piano concerto was famous before Morecambe and Wise performed all the right notes “but not necessarily in the right order” with André Previn in their 1971 Christmas Show. The concerto – technically a long way from being the most difficult in the piano repertoire – had become a “warhorse” for every aspiring pianist. Tuneful, dramatic, rousing, it was instantly popular and remains so today.

The work is among the Norwegian composer’s earliest important works, written by the 24-year-old in 1868 in Søllerød, Denmark, during one of his visits there to benefit from the climate. The work was premiered by the pianist Edmund Neupert on 3 April 1869 in Copenhagen. The Norwegian premiere in Oslo (then called Christiania) followed on 7 August 1869. When Grieg visited Franz Liszt in Rome in 1870, Liszt sight-read the work before an audience of musicians and praised it highly.

Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, into a family that encouraged his early musical studies. He completed his musical education at the Leipzig Conservatory, whose piano department was directed by the virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles. In 1864, Grieg moved to Copenhagen, then the centre of Scandinavian nationalism. He later returned to Norway, where his songs, piano music, and incidental music became linked with the spirit of Norwegian folk music and literature. Grieg once wrote, “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights… I want to build homes for people in which they can be happy and contented.”

The piano concerto begins with a dramatic timpani roll followed by a brilliant descending passage on the piano (some say reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s earlier piano concerto) which sets the scene for a succession of lyrical, reflective, and grandiose themes. The melancholy second movement ends with a dialogue between the piano and the solo horn. Only in the final movement does one hear the vigour of Norwegian folk dance. Not surprisingly, Liszt championed the work and was largely responsible for making it one of the most frequently performed of all piano concertos.

However, “most frequently performed” often means a routine, barnstorming performance that lacks nuance. So, when The Gramophone reviewed the best recordings in 2014 they listed:

  • Leif Ove Andsnes with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Mariss Jansons (a version that “retains a freshness and expressiveness that always sound spontaneous”).
  • Howard Shelley with the Orchestra of Opera North both playing and conducting (a performance “to put alongside the classics”).
  • Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos (“until you hear a performance like this one you may never quite believe it can be done”).
  • Murray Perahia with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis (“Never is there the slightest sacrifice of his customary artistic sensitivity or keyboard finesse”).

And these are indeed exemplary recordings. There is another that goes to the heart of the work, with a delicacy and thoughtfulness that contrast vividly with the work’s reputation as a warhorse. In 1959, the British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon recorded the work with the London Symphony Orchestra led by the Norwegian conductor Øivin Fjeldstad, one of the most influential figures in his country’s post-war musical history.

The young Daniel Barenboim heard Curzon play the Grieg piano concerto “where he produced extraordinary colours on the piano” and “a bell-like quality” in the instrument’s upper register. Those attributes can clearly be heard on Curzon’s Decca recording reissued as part of the series “Milestones of a Piano Legend”. Curzon, of course, plays all the right notes in the right order, but he does far more than that. He gives a performance of grace and vitality that stands up against any later version. Well worth seeking out.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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