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
A generation prior to Sibelius, Edvard Grieg tackled the problem of creating a style that united personal and communal identity. He was motivated first by his associations with violinist Ole Bull and composer Rikard Nordraak. “It was as if the scales fell from my eyes,” recalled Grieg. “From Nordraak I learned for the first time what the Norwegian folk song was, and learned to know my own nature.” In most of his music, however, he avoided direct quotation from folk sources, preferring, as in the Piano Concerto, to work for less obvious ways to evoke melodic contours suggestive of Norway (“I am sure my music has a taste of codfish,” he once quipped). The Concerto was composed during a summer sojourn to Italy shortly after the birth of Grieg’s daughter. While there, he met with Franz Liszt, Europe’s reigning piano virtuoso, who had already expressed interest in his work. Liszt’s encouragement emboldened Grieg to show him the score of the Concerto he was working on; the story goes that Liszt gave a flawless reading of the piece at sight; his enthusiasm has been shared by countless pianists (and audiences) since.
Grieg was only 25 at the work’s 1869 premiere, which might lead you to think that the piece would be superficial – and there is no dearth of surface here: catchy tunes, brilliant timbres, flashy virtuoso exhibitions. Yet the young composer had a feel for the way this surface could serve those elements of music that emerge in longer terms: long-range formal structures, subtle relationships between parts, and the like. Also appropriate to his youth is Grieg’s emphasis on mood-painting; what he has managed to do here is create a tone poem – or series of tone poems – for piano and orchestra, with a distinctive Norwegian feel created by the use of characteristic melodic patterns and rhythms. Thus the work retains a certain youthful naiveté even while sweeping the listener along in a coherent aesthetic vision.
The arresting gesture that opens the Concerto – a downward cascade that outlines an A-minor chord – demonstrates the play between surface brilliance and deeper significance. By firmly establishing the harmony of A minor, it allows for exploration of further harmonic regions without disrupting the stability of the movement. It also allows the listener to follow a plethora of thematic material without losing a basic point of reference.
The second movement reminds us that Grieg was more at home in the smaller lyric genres; here we are drawn into an intimate scene using the colors of muted strings and woodwind solos. The soloist does not enter until well into the movement, first as a decorative touch, then gradually integrated into the principal thematic material.
The last movement is dominated by the soloist’s robust foot-stomping theme, which steps back briefly for a serene interlude introduced by a flute solo (that foreshadows Grieg’s equally deft use of the instrument in Peer Gynt) and featuring lyrical, improvisatory passages from the piano. Soon the dance takes over again, pushing the piece to its dramatic conclusion.