Piano Concerto in A minor
Born in Bergen, Norway, June 15, 1843; died in Bergen, September 4, 1907
When the adolescent Edvard Grieg showed exceptional musical promise, he was sent off at age 15 to Leipzig, Germany because Norway — not yet an independent country — had no conservatory to train him. Although he chafed at Leipzig's rigid pedagogy — and at German music in general — Grieg did eventually find a sympathetic teacher in Ernst Wenzel, who had been a friend of Robert Schumann. Wenzel passed on his love of Schumann's music to the young Norwegian, and when in 1858 Grieg heard a performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto played by Clara Schumann, he was enthralled by the work. Ten years later, while composing his own Piano Concerto in the same key of A minor, he would draw on Schumann's concerto for inspiration.
Although Grieg's Piano Concerto followed the traditional form of the Romantic Germanic concerto, it was the subtle use of Norwegian folk influences that kept the work from being a clone of Schumann's. The Concerto was the product of youth and happiness: composed during the idyllic summer of 1868, which the 25-year-old composer, his young bride, Nina, and their infant daughter spent in rural Denmark. It was a notable success at its first performance in Copenhagen in April 1869.
This is a work that glories in its multitude of appealing themes — very personally Grieg's own — and its highly successful blending of tender lyricism with virtuoso display. Its first movement dispenses with any orchestral exposition: just a dramatic timpani roll galvanizes the soloist into action. His vertiginous three-octave plunge begins with a three-note melodic pattern — a descending half-step, following by a descending third — that is common in Norwegian folk music and became known as the “Grieg motive.” Woodwinds then introduce the folk-like principal theme, animated by crisp rhythms. In a slightly slower tempo, cellos sing a romantically melancholic second theme. After a brief development, the opening music is reprised, coming to a sudden halt for a big solo cadenza composed by Grieg.
The slow movement travels far from the home key of A minor into the very distant D-flat Major. Muted strings open with a weary theme, saturated in sorrow. The piano's wistful response is woven of exquisite fast figurations. In a new phase, the piano passionately declares the pain implied in this melody before the movement dies out in elegiac beauty.
A short bridge passage intervenes to return the key of D-flat to A minor before the piano launches the finale's stomping main theme in the style of the Norwegian halling folk dance. Providing an interlude of repose, the solo flute sings a hauntingly lovely melody in a slower tempo; the piano sensitively compliments it with downward slip-sliding chords. Grieg builds excitement to a brief solo cadenza of double-handed octaves. Then the soloist transforms the 2/4 halling into a sparkling 3/4 waltz. But Grieg has an even better idea for his finish: he brings back the haunting second theme, now in a splendid apotheosis in A Major. As annotator Michael Steinberg pointed out, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff would later imitate this crowd-pleasing device, but Grieg did it first.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2018