Magazine article The Spectator

Music Glorious Grieg

Magazine article The Spectator

Music Glorious Grieg

Article excerpt

Eternally fresh. That's how Grieg's Piano Concerto is described by programme notes, Classic FM, etc. Though, to be honest, eternally stale is nearer the mark. No 19th-century warhorse has been submitted to such regular thrashing since it was written in 1868. In the early days of the Proms, where I heard it last week, they would sometimes schedule it twice in one season.

Don't get me wrong: the work is a masterpiece. Edvard Grieg's only masterpiece, indeed, which is sad, considering that he composed it at the age of 25 and produced nothing of comparable stature in the remaining 40 years of his life. It begins with a drum roll followed by the most celebrated rhetorical flourish in the history of piano concertos - a cannonade of double octaves fired down the keyboard. I asked a pianist friend if it was nerve-racking to play. Not normally, he said - but if by any chance one of your hands misjudges an octave, then even the deaf old lady in the gods will notice. (There's a live recording by Michelangeli with a minuscule smudge in the phrase, which must have mortified the icy perfectionist. ) The Grieg is not only full of lovely tunes: it also develops them using piquant, occasionally savage harmonies that were years ahead of their time. Antony Hopkins, the composer and broadcaster whose Talking About Music series was one of the glories of Radio 3 in the 1970s (and who's happily still with us, aged 91), reckons that, 'apart from Wagner, Grieg should be given credit for being one of the very first composers to use harmony of quite such chromatic richness.

Certainly he must have had a considerable influence on Delius.' Actually, Delius once teased Ravel that fin de siecle French music was 'simply Grieg plus the Third Act of Tristan'. Ravel conceded the point - but then he loved Grieg and once had the honour of playing one of the Norwegian Dances to the composer. 'More rhythm!' said Grieg, jumping up from his chair and skipping around the room to demonstrate Nordic peasant steps. Must have been quite a sight, given that he was about the size of a goblin.

You can hear that skipping motion in the finale of the Piano Concerto. But any rustic naivety is offset by the sophistication of the solo writing. The first-movement cadenza, in particular, surrounds a fortissimo statement of the main theme with sparkling trills and smoochy arpeggios that had early audiences reaching for the smelling salts. …

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