Programme notes

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16, Edvard Grieg (1843—1907)

The A minor Piano Concerto is one of Grieg’s few large-scale works: as a young man he composed a symphony but later decided that it was unfit to be performed.  He is otherwise best known for his miniature Lyric Pieces for piano and the incidental music he wrote for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, as well as several violin sonatas and the ever-popular Norwegian Dances.  At the time when Grieg was composing, Norway was not an independent nation: since 1814 the country had been a reluctant partner in a union with Sweden.  In Norway, therefore, as in many other European countries, Romanticism in the arts was profoundly bound up with the struggle for national self-definition.  This Romantic enthusiasm for ‘national identity’—authentic or otherwise—found inspiration in native folk-music and oral traditions, and many of Grieg’s works feature the richly lyrical, sometimes melancholy, and poetically simple sounds of Norwegian folksong.

The Piano Concerto was composed in 1868, shortly after Grieg’s marriage to the soprano Nina Hagerup, and the birth of their daughter Alexandra.  It has often been compared to the Schumann Piano Concerto (also in A minor), and indeed Grieg consciously modelled his concerto on the earlier work, which he heard performed in Leipzig by no less a pianist than Clara Schumann.  A striking parallel between the works is the way they both open with a brief burst from the orchestra followed by dramatic descending chords from the piano.  Another influence to be detected is that of Liszt, who raved about the concerto when Grieg showed it to him in 1870, and made numerous suggestions about orchestration and piano writing, many of which Grieg incorporated into the final published version.  Yet alongside the Lisztian pyrotechnics there is also an unpretentious lyricism reminiscent of Chopin, and it is the combination of this with Grieg’s highly inventive use of Norwegian folk-rhythms and melodies that creates the sheer excitement and enduring appeal of the work.

The first movement is full of contrasting material, including sparkling leggiero passages, an expansive second subject, and a spectacular cadenza based around the main theme.  The movement concludes with a reprise of the opening chords, this time with full orchestra joining in.  The Adagio is sometimes described as a nocturne 'not a Mediterranean nocturne, but the gentle shimmering light of a Scandinavian midsummer night.'  In many sections, though, it more resembles a chorale, with dark medieval harmonies.  The Norwegian element is perhaps most pronounced in the finale, which follows straight on from the slow movement (again a la Schumann).  Its main theme incorporates rhythmic patterns from the hallig, one of Norway’s national folk dances, and in the coda the same music returns, transformed into a springdans (leaping-dance) in ¾ time.  Throughout, Grieg incorporates effects such as bare fifths and drones which are characteristic of the Hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian folk instrument much like a violin but with a distinctive sound created by the presence of a set of sympathetic strings.  One of the most exciting things in this movement is the way that the seemingly innocent second subject is recalled right at the end in a triumphant fortissimo. 

Colin Touchin

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