GRIEG Piano Concerto. Fragments
Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor was the first concerto ever to be recorded (Wilhelm Backhaus, heavily abridged). That was in 1909. Since then there have been, at a conservative estimate, over 120 further recordings. Yet despite this constant average flow of one new version every year since Backhaus’s, halfway through 2015 there have already been, to my certain knowledge, five new ones. How do you stake a claim to significance when the competition includes de Greef, Friedman, Lipatti, Kovacevich and Andsnes?
Carl Petersson makes a claim by offering the work in Percy Grainger’s edition (1919). The audible alterations made to the score are absolutely minimal. What is audible – and what seems to have informed this reading – is Grainger’s observation in his Foreword that Grieg’s own tempi ‘were faster than those usually heard in performances of [his] works by other artists’ and his ‘renderings knew no trace of sentimentality or mawkishness’. Petersson and his conductor take Grainger at his word and thereby rob the concerto of all its charm.
In 1882 83 Grieg worked on a second piano concerto in B minor but it was never completed. The 2'34" of these sketches precede a five-movements-in-one Piano Concerto in B minor by Helge Evju (b1942) based on fragments by Grieg. I rather enjoyed this ‘piece of whimsy’ (Evju) with its lush romanticism, neo-Lisztian flourishes and echoes of Rachmaninov. This, rather than the Grieg Concerto, makes the disc appealing, along with Evju’s two Earl Wild-inspired Grieg song transcriptions, played with commanding virtuosity by Petersson.
For a truly outstanding recording of the Grieg, turn to Vadym Kholodenko, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, with its notably eloquent horn, cello and flute soloists making their presence felt alongside a pianist who allows the big tunes to breathe, knows exactly how to shape each movement and yet injects the urgency of a live performance into proceedings. The slow movement is as moving as any I’ve heard, including the underrated version by Cziffra père et fils.
This is good but the companion piece, Saint-Saëns’s Second Concerto, is even better, perhaps the most consistently accurately observed reading on disc. The opening and closing of the first movement are humorously ponderous – isn’t that the point? – while the Scherzo is delivered with a mischievous leggiero insouciance. The Presto, like all three movements slightly slower than those of Hough, Grosvenor and Shelley, builds to a thrilling climax in which the soloist, for once, is not obliterated by the orchestra. Shelley added the Schumann Concerto to his Grieg and Saint-Saëns Second (Chandos, 5/09), but otherwise this Harmonia Mundi coupling is hard to beat.