Grieg Cello Sonata in A minor, op. 36

performed by Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough, or below by Natalia Gutman and Viacheslav Poprugin

I am both spiritually and bodily unwell and decide every other day not to compose another note, because I satisfy myself less and less.

Grieg, included in notes by Steven Isserlis

(cover image by Michael Oeser)

Grieg’s only cello sonata was composed in 1882 and was at least one of the first pieces he composed after a busy period as conductor of the Bergen Symphony, as well as from a period of illness, as mentioned above, that may have been as much emotional as it was physical.

There’s also more self-plagiarism here. He used themes from a funeral march and a wedding march he had previously composed. He dedicated the work to his brother John, a talented amateur cellist, but it was Friedrich Ludwig Grützmacher who premiered the work with the composer at the piano on 22 October, 1883, in Dresden.

The Wikipedia article states (or used to) that this is “his largest chamber work,” also stating that the work with its three movements “takes approximately 26 minutes to perform.” The link there in that quote is an article on ‘chamber music,’ and it uses the term “string quartet” 93 times. Grieg’s string quartet is in four movements, playing for about 34 minutes. Hmmmmm.

And actually, you should go read the above-linked notes that Isserlis wrote for his Hyperion release with his very talented friend Stephen Hough. Not only is Isserlis a remarkable performer, he is an equally talented and eloquent writer, as well as a very nice human. Follow him on Facebook for outstanding thoughts from his practice sessions, concerts, etc. In any case, the entire little essay is worth reading and far better than anything I could write here, and yet here we are!

The work begins anxiously, stormily, in A minor, so one can’t help but think of his piano concerto, in the same key. This is the first attack that Isserlis says people level against this work:

The looming shadow of the piano concerto in the outer movements is not the only self-reminiscence here; the theme of the slow movement, also, is almost identical to that of the Triumphal (or Homage) March from Grieg’s incidental music to Sigurd Jorsalfar (where it is played by four solo cellos). But is this really a problem? The melodies are convincingly beautiful, and deeply felt…

He makes an excellent point. It is an astute writer who can reasonably and clearly state the arguments against his point, and yet clearly convince the reader. The opening may clearly remind the listener of one of the composer’s most famous works, but instead, listen for how convincing that emotion is, and then to what it is contrasted with, a truly beautiful, expressive melody, free of strife.

Blair Johnston, writing for AllMusic, mentions “Grieg‘s frustrations and difficulties with traditional genres (sonata, string quartet, symphony, and the like),” and we saw as much in the string quartet, but let’s instead listen to what the composer is able to do with the emotional content in this movement; we even have a small cadenza for the soloist, marking a high point in the energy for this first movement, and an effective one at that! For all the criticisms people have leveled against it, I don’t think many lay listeners would come to any of those conclusions just listening to the work, due to its emotional accessibility and beauty. Listen to the piano’s statement of the cello’s opening line at the recapitulation, or the return of that warm second theme, and you’ll understand the charms of this first movement, if not the whole work.

The central movement begins innocently, like the chimes of a small music box. We’re in a major key here, and as Isserlis reminds us, here lies the second jab to the work, the composer’s recycling a theme from a previous work, but again, “is this really a problem?” It’s beautiful, richly expressive, a warm comforting hug you might need after the first movement, but as Johnston states, as the shortest movement of this sonata progresses, “it becomes clear that all is not as innocent and sweetly lyrical as the lovely opening melody would suggest,” and this movement reveals its own turmoil. But it doesn’t last, thankfully, because it does get quite intense, and the conversation returns to the simple beauty of the opening, in much the way a friend may confide in you about something very sensitive, but say “never mind,” and move on as if it was a silly comment.

The finale begins with a brief, quiet introduction, but quickly reveals itself to be a busy, almost mischievous dance. There are powerful plucks from the cello that underline the heartbeat of this slightly restrained wildness, but even when we cool down to a peaceful echo of the former passage, we still have the cello plucking out a background tempo. Again, I feel the emotional development here is more important than any musical or theoretical stuff, but interestingly, after this emotionally charged movement, with intense passion and beauty from both piano and cello, the movement and thus the entire piece ends in A major. The composer had every chance in the world to end the work tragically, or darkly, but after all that, or maybe despite all that, the work ends positively.

Isserlis, in his program notes, quotes an anonymous reviewer of the work writing for Musical Opinion magazine in London in 1889 who says:

…in the finale (of Schubertian length, but without a bar to spare) the truly organic development of the beautiful subject-matter, which rises at times to a lofty height, would do credit even to Brahms.

Don’t always listen to the critics, including me. You may find something particularly important or special or outstanding in this music that a critic may find banal. But again, who cares? It’s a nice work, and one that has eventually earned a place in the cello repertoire, with many champions besides Isserlis.

We have one more bit of Grieg later in the week, so do stay tuned for that, and then we jump ahead farther in the musical timeline than I realized we would, but it’ll be fun. Thank you for reading.

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