Grieg wrote his concerto in 1868, at a time when music came easily to him. He was 25 and happy: he had met Nina, was in Denmark, and had finished his studies and found his voice. In a way, it’s his best period. Later he wrote some wonderful music, but he always struggled with it. His Piano Concerto is the only large-scale piece where he doesn’t seem to struggle with transitions. Everything flows so naturally.
The obvious Schumann influence is seen in the fanfare-like opening in the piano, with descending chords from treble down to bass, and the first theme presented by the winds and then by the piano. Then you have piano figurations, arpeggios, which are asymmetrical – you have five per beat, which gives this floating feeling just like in the Schumann. In the development section, piano arpeggios accompany wind solos – also taken from Schumann. The first-movement structure draws on the way Schumann built his concerto, but the emotional content and character are different.
The Schumann is sophisticated in its varied reusing of motifs and themes – it is urban and intellectual as well as Romantically confessional. Grieg is much more a force of nature. His is a grand statement from a young man who really wants to conquer the world. It has a kind of openness to it that you don’t find in the Schumann. Also, Grieg goes for flashy effects which Schumann would never think of, such as the big octave passage, clearly inspired by Liszt and Tchaikovsky.
When you start rehearsals with an orchestra, some of the musicians laugh at the pathos of that beginning, because it’s somehow too famous to be taken seriously. Our duty is to take it seriously – to imagine how Grieg felt it, and what it was like at the premiere. The sound of the timpani, then this huge A minor chord very high up in the treble, is quite extraordinary. When I played this piece at the beginning of my career, I often broke a treble piano string in the first bar – because the piano hadn’t been used until that moment and then suddenly there’s enormous pressure on the high treble. Fortunately, later on in the piece you’re not up there as much, so you don’t hear the clanging noise of a loose string.
The huge contrast between this drama and the pure simplicity of the first theme adds to the fascination of the piece. Those chords are so beautiful played very plainly. There are normal triads and then a dissonant one with four notes – small details like this are important in this piece. And when you’re sensitive to them, that’s when a performance works.
After the Schumann-influenced beginning, the piece becomes more Norwegian. There is an animato section that is like a Norwegian folk dance, with the emphasis on the weaker parts of the bar – the second and fourth beats. This flavour, of German Romanticism with a seed of folk music makes the piece unique.
The second theme of the first movement is curious. The harmonies unfold and you hear Grieg’s ‘signature’: a combination of melodies that are very much like folk melodies – they have a simplicity that makes them very touching. Hear two bars of one of his piano pieces containing this element and you know immediately that it’s Grieg. Then he builds up and you have one of the first octave passages: our hero is making his mark again. The piece is full of contrasts between this huge passion and the simplicity of folk melodies.
Grieg must have loved the sound of the octave passages in the development section, something that Schumann would never have used so bluntly. When we come to the cadenza, it builds touchingly, with sad harmonies, then there’s total silence. This pause is terribly important. Then there’s the passage that builds up with waves in the bass of the piano, up and down, and tremolos, with lots of possibilities to create sound and grow bigger and bigger. If it’s played well it’s extremely effective, because it’s like being in the ocean with huge waves. Grieg continues with this enormous roaring in the bass. Nobody has played this as phenomenally as Lipatti in his recording. I have no idea how he does it, but it sounds like a lion roar.
There is an ingenious element to the transition into the coda. In pieces from the Classical period, very often a piano cadenza will end with some trills; Grieg does the same with tremolos and trills, but then, instead of getting straight into the coda, he has four bars of the strings playing the most touching, painful inner harmonies, which create such depth and drama. This sums it all up in an intimate way, which renders all that has happened before – all the pianistic effects – unflashy. Then he has a folk-like, very fast tune in the cadenza and finishes off with the same fanfare that he started with, this time in triplets, going from the top of the keyboard to the bottom and then up again – a new element and all very heroic.
Then we come to the highlight, which is the beginning of the second movement. We have moved quite far away from the Schumann influence. This melody, the culmination of folk-like simplicity and tenderness, combined with a Tchaikovskian sweep in the longer phrases and the symphonic writing, always gets straight to people’s hearts. The piano entrance is very simple but beautiful and tender, like small brooks of pure water. Later, when it opens up, it’s like the beauty of nature unfolding itself. As always, it then becomes grand – you can imagine that Grieg is at the peak of the mountain now, looking out. At the end of the movement, he does something ingenious in the horn solo, which starts off with a concert F against the piano’s D flat – a major third. Then the horn moves down to F flat, still against the piano’s D flat, creating this feeling of nostalgia.
The last two bars here, and the first two bars of the next movement, are reminiscent of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto: three chords in the strings, very soft, then a long one with the piano going up from the bass, just in the minor here, not the major. It’s a curious thing and I’m sure Grieg must have known the Beethoven and been influenced by it.
The last movement is in a wonderful Norwegian dance rhythm again, and Grieg creates marvellous piano figurations. He was a good pianist, not a great one, and he wouldn’t very often play this piece himself, but he did conduct it.
The middle part of the last movement features a beautiful and folk-like flute solo that reminds us of ‘Morning Mood’ from Peer Gynt. Percy Grainger wrote that Grieg played this passage with a restless, almost feverish emotionality but without a trace of sentimentality. Very often it’s played in a slow, syrupy fashion, which doesn’t make it so convincing. It’s full of waves and contrasts, the huge octave passage before the coda reminding us of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Grieg must have loved that effect and known that the audience would love it, too.
Finding the honesty
Recording the piece in Berlin with Mariss Jansons was special. There is such an honesty with him and never any trace of cynicism. With this piece, you need to believe in the pure feeling and passion of it, and Jansons is a master at that.
Grieg’s world is not an inexhaustible one like, say, that of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, but this is music that I’ve grown up with – it’s such a signature piece, and the Morecambe and Wise sketch remains one of my all-time favourite bits of humour. It’s remarkable that you can play the opening and people seem to know it. In fact, even if people haven’t heard it before, they still get it. You just have to hear that roll on the timpani…
Explore more great piano concertos
Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis
Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich
Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough
Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Schumann Piano Concerto, by Ingrid Fliter
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2, by Alexander Melnikov
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin