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Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

About the Work

Edvard Grieg
Quick Look Composer: Edvard Grieg
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Stéphane Denève, conductor/Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano Nov. 3 - 5, 2005
© Richard Freed
Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16

Grieg composed his only concerto during a holiday at Sölleröd in the Danish countryside during the summer of 1868; the premiere was given in Copenhagen on April 3 of the following year, with Edmund Neupert as soloist. Percy Grainger, a friend of Grieg's and a celebrated interpreter of the Concerto, was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the work, with Hans Kindler conducting, on November 20, 1932; in the most recent one, on June 21, 2002, the soloist was Laura Mikkola and the conductor was Osmo Vänskä.

In addition to the solo piano, the score, dedicated to Edmund Neupert, calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with 4 horns 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration, 30 minutes.

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Grieg's national identity-his embodiment of the Norwegian spirit in music-is so much stressed in discussions of his work that his purely musical affinities tend to be overlooked. His artistic orientation, however, remains as pertinent as his strong national feeling in defining the essence of his personal style. There are conspicuous links to Mendelssohn, but the strongest influence in his formative years was that of Robert Schumann, who died just two years before Grieg entered the Leipzig Conservatory (founded by Mendelssohn) at the age of 15, not as an aspiring composer, but as an ambitious pianist.

At the conservatory Grieg became so disheartened by his lessons with Louis Plaidy that he arranged to be assigned to a different teacher, Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, who had been a lifelong friend of Schumann's. It was Wenzel who introduced Grieg to Schumann's music, and the teen-aged Grieg responded with an enthusiasm that was to remain undimmed to the end of his life. In Leipzig, too, Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform the concerto her husband composed for her. When he returned to Bergen and gave his first public recital there, he not only introduced some of his own piano pieces but also took part in a performance of Schumann's Quintet for piano and strings.

Mendelssohn's Songs without Words may have provided Grieg with a generalized sort of impetus for his own Lyric Pieces , but we must look to Schumann's suites of "characteristic pieces" for a parallel in respect to substance. The parallel is more striking still in the case of the piano concertos by Grieg and Schumann, both of which happen to be in the same key of A minor and open with similar gestures. There can be little question that Grieg modeled the entire first movement of his concerto rather closely after that of Schumann's.

To say that Grieg took the Schumann Concerto as a model for his own, though, is not to say that he composed in imitation of Schumann. There is no denying the originality of the ideas that fill all three movements. Musicians intimately acquainted with Schumann and his work, in fact, were the first to recognize the originality in Grieg's Concerto, which brought the young composer his first great success.

Grieg was not present at his Concerto's premiere in Copenhagen, but such luminaries as Anton Rubinstein, Niels W. Gade and Emil Hartmann were, and Neupert, who played the solo part, sent Grieg a report three days after that wildly successful event in which he quoted Rubinstein as having declared himself "astounded to have heard a composition of such genius." The reaction of Franz Liszt, far more dramatic, came later, in an extraordinary meeting in Rome.

An early violin sonata of Grieg's had moved Liszt to write to him, remarking on his “strong, creative, inventive and well disciplined talent” and inviting him to visit. Grieg called on him in April 1870, a year after the Concerto's premiere, and after performing the entire sonata with Liszt (who played the violin part on the piano and then astounded his visitor by playing both instruments' parts in an improvised setting) he paid a second visit, this time bringing with him the score of the Concerto. When Liszt asked him to play it for him Grieg said he could not, as he had never practiced the work; Liszt thereupon undertook to play it himself-having never set eyes on it before—and played it brilliantly, giving voice to his enthusiasm as he played. At one point, near the end, he became so excited that he rose from the piano and strode about the room with his arms raised, singing the theme at the top of his voice, and then, as Grieg reported in a letter home,

he went back to the piano, repeated the whole strophe, and finished off. At the end he said to me . . . "You carry on, my friend; you have the real stuff in you. And don't ever let them frighten you!"

The Concerto, which has splendidly sustained Liszt's judgment since that time, asserts Grieg's own character despite its Schumannesque gestures, and that character is of course firmly linked to his Norwegian roots, as evidenced in the lyric second theme of the opening movement. The slow movement is in the nature of an extended lullabye or reverie, with some lovely moments for the cello, which Grieg favored as frequently as Schumann in his orchestral scores and chamber music. The finale might be regarded as a glorification of the national dance called the halling. For further comment, we can do no better than to quote yet another of Grieg's early admirers, his Russian contemporary Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose words, while inspired by more than a single work, seem especially pertinent to this one. In Grieg's music, Tchaikovsky wrote,

there prevails that fascinating melancholy which seems to reflect in itself all the beauty of Norwegian scenery, now grandiose and sublime in its vast expanse, now gray and dull, but always full of charm . . . and quickly finds its way into our hearts to evoke a warm and sympathetic response. . . . Hearing the music of Grieg we instinctively recognize that it was written by a man impelled by an irresistible impulse to give vent by means of sounds to a flood of poetical emotion, which obeys no theory or principle, is stamped with no impress but that of a vigorous and sincere artistic feeling. . . . What warmth and passion in his melodic phrases, what teeming vitality in his harmony, what originality and beauty in the turn of his piquant and ingenious modulations and rhythms, and in all the rest what interest, novelty and independence! If we add to this that rarest of qualities, a perfect simplicity, far removed from affectation and pretense . . . it is not surprising that everyone should delight in Grieg.