Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 16, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Brahm Van Den Berg
The 150th birthday of Edvard Grieg, in 1993, was grandly celebrated in his native Norway, which had indeed never forgotten him. The anniversary was at least acknowledged elsewhere, the recording industry being particularly helpful in this respect. 1993 may well have been instrumental (hoary pun intended) in restoring to circulation and a goodly measure of respectability such treasures as the composer’s Peer Gynt incidental score (with Ibsen’s text, rather than the pops concert suites), the Piano Concerto, and the Holberg Suite for string orchestra The celebrations, if such they may be called, may have resurrected additional pieces outside Scandinavia, but such superb works as the Lyric Pieces for piano and the Norwegian Dances and Sigurd Jorsalfar for orchestra, the stunning operatic fragment Olav Tryggvason, as well as the once-“standard” Elegiac Pieces remain absent from the international repertoire. Our loss.
But at least we have some pianists with international clout – Leif Ove Andsnes, Stephen Hough, and André Watts prominent among them – to keep the Piano Concerto before the concert public. The Concerto was written during the summer of 1868 and reflects its 25-year-old composer’s contentedness with his surroundings, a secluded cottage in the Danish countryside, and the companionship of his wife and newborn daughter. The premiere, a huge success – this is not one of those works that had to wait to find critical and audience acceptance – took place in Copenhagen the following April, with Grieg as the soloist.
The Concerto is launched by those familiar chords, the piano’s octaves sweeping the keyboard from top to bottom, then ascending again in giant arpeggios. It’s certainly an attention-grabbing opening, but also somewhat of a red herring (Nordic-waters pun unintentional), as is the case with another concerto everyone supposedly knows, Tchaikovsky’s First. Grieg’s opening gives the mistaken impression that heaven-storming is to be the movement’s preoccupation, when, in fact, a tender lyricism prevails, starting with the subsequent main theme (as in the Tchaikovsky, the opening passages are merely introductory material), announced by the woodwinds and taken up by the soloist.
But the killer tune – a supreme example of the composer’s melodic inventiveness – is the bittersweet second theme. Liszt, a strong supporter of the young Grieg, suggested that it be announced by solo trumpet, advice that Grieg eagerly accepted. And so it appeared in the first published edition (1872). Subsequently, however, Grieg, who knew from the start a thing or two about orchestration (Liszt knew only a thing), changed it to the version now heard, the theme announced by the cellos. A mellow masterstroke, as it turned out.
Movement two begins with a gentle, folklike melody sung by the muted strings, whereupon the piano enters with its own, separate theme. High register piano trills usher in, without pause, the finale which, after some virtuoso brilliance, settles into the kind of theme Grieg did best: an exquisitely simple-seeming inspiration, purely Norwegian in its melodic cast, yet laid out for fingers on a piano by a hand that knew, and revered, Chopin.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times. He has been English-language editor/annotator for the Salzburg Festival since 1996.