performed by the Seoul Philharmonic under James Judd, Valentina Lisitsa, piano
(I wanted to find a video or recording of her performance here in Taipei from back in October 2013, but the best I could do was this rather useless ad
Can you think of any other piano concerti in Am? Schumann? Very good. What about Mrs. Schumann? Also very good. The first one is the more important, and while Grieg had it in mind (to some extent or other) during the composition of his own piano concerto (both of them having only written one piano concerto, Grieg not having written any other concerto for any instrument, while Schumann’s cello concerto is also quite famous). There are some similarities, but I must say Grieg’s piano concerto strikes me in a way that Schumann’s does not. It has a solid place toward the top of the Romantic piano repertoire, and for good reason. It also remains one of the composer’s most enduring works.
The 24-year-old Norwegian composer wrote it in Denmark, on a bit of a summer holiday in 1868. The composer had actually heard Schumann’s Am concerto played by Mrs. Clara Schumann ten years earlier in 1858 in Leipzig, and was greatly impressed. There’s another connection
here to Schumann: Grieg’s piano teacher Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel was a friend of Schumann. In any case, the work was premiered on April 3, 1869, by Edmund Neupert under Holger Simon Paulli in Copenhagen. Anton Rubinstein was in attendance, if for no other reason than he lent Neupert his piano for the premiere. Grieg himself (apparently a fantastic pianist) was supposed to be the soloist, but had another engagement in what is now Oslo, so he could not attend. Neupert was also the dedicatee of the second edition of the work, and apparently also wrote the (amazing, dramatic, perfect) cadenza in the first movement.
The Norwegian premiere was
a few months later in Norway (August 7, to be exact), and Grieg visited Liszt in Rome in 1870, where the latter site read the piece in front of a small audience, and gave Grieg praise for his work, while apparently also suggesting some changes. In all, some 300 (small) changes were made to the piece, and the final version of the work (that is commonly played today) was completed and published only weeks before the composer’s death. This concerto is also the first ever to be recorded, although extremely (morbidly?) truncated at only six minutes in 1909 by William Backhaus, the heavy editing due to the limits of recording length at the time. There are lots of other “popular culture” references on the Wikipedia article for where this piece has shown up here or there, and those of you who don’t care for classical music or aren’t familiar with it (but have watched or listened to or seen certain ‘popular’ TV shows, commercials, games, etc.) may recognize some part of it.
I saw this piece performed in our local concert hall by the one and only Valentina Lisitsa. The program was of Northern European composers (Pärt, Nielsen, another Grieg piece, someone else?) and she was mindblowingly amazing. The piece was played with such energy and confidence and passion as to be almost tiring. Read more about it here
. It was one of the greatest music experiences I’d ever had. That may sound corny, but it’s true. She made it look effortless, but it was played with such intense energy and passion. As I said at the opening, I wanted to find our local orchestra, but I chose the Seoul Philharmonic if for no other reason than that Ms. Lisitsa plays it and I’ve watched this performance.
Needless to say, that was not my first encounter with this piece, but when I saw it on the program for October, I was at once giddy and anxious. I was extremely worried I wouldn’t be able to get tickets, but low and behold, for only about $35 a pop, I got two (pretty good) tickets, and the person for the other ticket bailed on me, so I suddenly had a spare. Fortunately, my piano teacher was available, so we went. It was truly spectacular.
That being said, let’s talk a bit about the piece. As much as it has association with the Schumann, the feelings I have toward them are dramatically different. That’s not to say that Schumann’s only concerto is “worse” per se than Grieg’s only concerto, but I would certainly choose the Norwegian one over the German one. Let’s run through it really quick and then I can talk about why.
The piece opens up in a similar fashion to Schumann’s, with a timpani roll and a very dramatic, attention grabbing piano flourish. Upper woodwinds enter with the main theme, and almost from the beginning it feels fresh, Nordic, and ice cold (but not in a negative harsh way). The piano later echoes this main theme in its elaborate, enjoyable fashion, once alone and once again with the orchestra, then there is a more melodic contrasting melody after a very lively chatty bit. This is the material we are working with for the first movement, and it is likely the most famous material of the concerto, at least for those who have stumbled across it in pop culture or elsewhere aside from listening to it as a concerto. It is dripping with 19th century romanticism, but in a fresh, inspiring, arresting passionate way. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something so thoroughly enjoyable about this movement. The orchestration is wonderful; the melody passes through the orchestra and at one turn there’s a beautiful flute line, then the french horn has it, then there’s a sudden trumpet call, but it’s all in place. The cadenza in this movement is thrilling and wonderful. I love it. Thanks to Neupert, if he did in fact write this cadenza. While it’s not new material, it states the theme fantastically well, and in a way that perfectly suits the piano and the dramatics that a cadenza should have. Maybe I just love the themes in this movement. There’s something so spectacular about them, and it is exciting to hear what happens to them and how this movement progresses. There isn’t a dull moment, and I enjoy the very nice balance in the first movement between the orchestra and the piano as well as a nice balance of emotion. It isn’t definitively dramatic or sad or happy, but it is at different turns, a little bit of all of those without being confusing. The cadenza takes us nearly to the end of the first movement, and it’s less than a minute before the ending (in most recordings) that the orchestra returns for kind of a coda to end the first movement excitingly, quoting the entrance.
The second movement is in D major and much quieter and more serene. It’s beautiful in a simple, soothing, quiet, flowing, lyrical way where the piano tinkers over quiet background strings, almost to a fault (maybe?) and in some spots it as if you forget you are even listening to something. It’s so simple and naturally beautiful that it’s almost…. not. I don’t know. A few minutes in, there is almost a moment of tension, and then we get more winds and a bit of a climax from the piano and orchestra together, but the simplicity and serene nature of this movement makes it feel almost like an interlude. There’s a nice French horn part toward the end. This is also by far the shortest movement of the three in the piece, also making it feel more like an interlude. The progress of the piece is also very linear (to me). It’s not in a ternary form or theme with variations or anything. It runs with its one (granted, very pretty) line and up to climax, then fades away. It’s pretty, but there’s nothing really spectacular about it aside from that.
Then we have the third movement, back in Am, and back to something that mirrors the energy of the first movement. The third movement has a cadenza and a lyrical middle section as well, bookended by the fast, energetic (super fun!) fast first theme. I don’t even know what to call this third movement. Is it a rondo? It’s something dancing and fun and exciting, especially when played faster. The cadenza comes early in the movement, and it carries a different, more progressive role in the third movement, not just as a climax, but moving the piece forward (to me…) Then we get to the second theme, the lyrical one. This movement is kind of in four different sections. After the introduction of the first two themes, we are back to something similar to (if not called a variation on or maybe just identical to) theme 1, but the fourth and final section is theme two (the lyrical one) played more dramatically, hugely romantically. It is like the grand end of a journey. It’s almost celebratory.
There’s something so fulfilling, so accessible about this piece that makes it so likable. As I’ve said before, the ‘challenge’ of coming to understand, appreciate, and even like a piece makes it take on a special meaning or deeper appreciation for the work (Scriabin, for me), whereas something so instantly likable, even catchy, is potentially too saccharine to endure many repeated listenings. While this isn’t a piece I go listen to regularly (and it’s sometimes one I forget I even have, because I don’t have a large collection of Grieg’s music), when it comes to mind, and I go give it a half hour, it’s always sure to satisfy.
In fact, I had this goal by October of 2028 to be able to perform one of my other favorite concertos (we’ll get to that one later). That was fifteen years from October of last year. A few months have gone by, and I am no closer to reaching that goal. That being said, aside from another of the same composer’s concertos which I have conceded is far too hard to even think about being able to attempt to learn, Grieg’s piano concerto here is a close second enough that I believe I could endure years of practice to work on playing it as well, if I could only play one concerto. It’s not my favorite, but I would feel more than accomplished if I could perform this work. I would own it.
Also, I just love how Scandinavian this sounds. I can’t pinpoint why I feel that way or what it is musically that makes Grieg and Nielsen (and Sibelius [although Finland is geographically Northern European, it is NOT Scandinavian in the sense that it is related IN ANY WAY to the other North Germanic languages. Finnish is not a Germanic language and the culture is not in any way Germanic, but for purposes of this discussion, I will group their composers together]) sound distinct from German composers. There’s something about life there or the culture or a certain outlook that the music bears out and it is stunning. Grieg’s piano concerto is the perfect example of this. It’s also just a piece everyone should be familiar with. I wonder what a Sibelius piano concerto would have sounded like.