|About this Recording
GP689 - GRIEG, E.: Piano Concerto, Op. 16 / EVJU, H.: Piano Concerto in B Minor (on fragments by E. Grieg) (Petersson, Prague Radio Symphony, Stratton)
Grieg’s ‘Second Piano Concerto’
When I was invited by Helge Evju to record his realisation of Grieg’s unfinished piano concerto, conductor Kerry Stratton asked me to consider how to balance the programme. Kerry and I were thinking of perhaps adding another concerto, by either a contemporary or a less well-known Norwegian.
Although I was initially sceptical about the idea of pairing the A minor Grieg with the Evju Grieg, it turned out to be a convincing combination. To enhance the experience of hearing a concerto that has been recorded so many times, I decided to re-examine Grieg’s original metronome marks and consult the early gramophone recordings of Grieg at the keyboard. Rather than simply offering yet another performance of the A minor, we all agreed that it was time to do some fresh research.
Our objective would be to cast a new light on the work by way of the editing suggestions made by Grieg’s colleague and friend, Percy Grainger. Certainly Grainger had Grieg’s ear when it came to the subject of playing the piano, and we made a concerted effort to rethink this concerto primarily through the most important aspect of any performance—tempo. “Zeitmass ist alles” (Tempo is everything), as Wagner maintained.
The concerto by Helge Evju, which is based on the fragments Grieg left for his unfinished second piano concerto, is a work to which I have become seriously committed. The piece fills me with awe for Helge Evju and his subtle orchestration: he handles this Grieg orchestra with deftness, showing sensitivity to Grieg’s essential strength as a miniaturist; nothing in the accompaniment overwhelms.
Helge Evju later sent transcriptions of some of Grieg’s songs, which were recorded at a subsequent session. Here the writing enjoys a lush sound palette in the tradition of Leopold Godowsky and Ferruccio Busoni, and one is surprised by the depth and spirituality of what is, after all, a song without a singer.
Evju and Grieg are well matched. The resultant tone is completely Nordic, with its contrast of singular melancholy tempered with bursts of unbridled joy.
Grieg Piano Concerto (Percy Grainger edition)
In a pithy phrase that neatly embraces both Grieg’s diminutive stature and his effervescent musical vigour, Charles Villiers Stanford memorably called Edvard Grieg ‘a miniature Viking’. Stanford clearly recognised an elemental force in Grieg’s music that many of his contemporaries often failed to detect. Debussy, for instance, once said of Grieg’s Piano Concerto: ‘I could never understand why it should be broken up by martial trumpet blasts, usually announcing the beginning of nothing more than a languishing little cantabile.’
Such censoriousness inevitably gave rise to the oft-repeated claims that Grieg had little aptitude for extended composition and that he possessed only limited skills in orchestration. It also ignored what Percy Grainger called ‘the heroic undercurrent of the composer’s personality (so dramatically evinced by his brave behaviour in Paris in connection with the Dreyfus affair) and the intensity of his emotionality’. Grieg was one of the few major musicians of his era to adopt an open and defiant stance in the struggle to reinstate the French army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who in 1894 was falsely accused of treason simply because he was Jewish. Sections of French society remained so incensed by Grieg’s unwelcome foreign intervention that even in 1903 a police escort was needed to guard him when he returned to Paris to conduct and make some solo gramophone recordings.
Grainger noted how these stark contrasts between gentleness and emotional passion were reflected in Grieg’s music and also in his manner of performance: ‘Strong and sudden accents of all kinds and vivid contrasts of light and shade were outstanding features of his self-interpretations, while the note of passion that he sounded was of a restless and feverish rather than of a violent nature. Extreme delicacy and exquisiteness of detail were present in his piano playing and…he prized and demanded these resources in others, when occasion required.’
The working relationship between Grieg and Grainger, though short-lived because of Grieg’s sudden death in September 1907, was an extremely fruitful one, as the version of the Piano Concerto presented here serves to demonstrate. In the early years of the twentieth century the Australian-born Grainger was resident in London, and it was here, in May 1906, that he first met Grieg, who was very taken with the twenty-four-year-old’s piano playing. Grieg was also impressed by Grainger’s very serviceable command of Norwegian, and he invited the ‘Young Apollo’ to spend the summer of 1907 at Troldhaugen, his villa near Bergen. They spent much of their time revising and rehearsing the Piano Concerto in readiness for the Leeds Festival later that year. Grainger must surely have derived pleasure from being told: ‘You have become a dear young friend to me, who has made rich for me the evening of my life.’
Some years later, Grainger noted that ‘Grieg eschewed all “muddiness” or turgid obscurity of tonal effect in writing for the piano or other instruments and the performer of Grieg’s music should try to realise the composer’s predilection for bright and clear sonorities.’ Together, Grainger and Grieg annotated the Piano Concerto to indicate where such expression marks should be added to the score. During this exercise, Grieg also took the opportunity to make a number of minor alterations to the work. When Grainger finally published this version of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in 1919 he clearly indicated three categories of textual emendation: changes made by Grieg himself (marked EG), changes suggested verbally by Grieg to Grainger (marked PG-EG), and changes of a purely technical nature that Grainger himself made as a consequence of hearing Grieg play his own music (marked PG). In the foreword to his version of the Piano Concerto, Grainger justifiably claims it to be ‘authentic’ in that it represents ‘the latest edition sanctioned by Grieg himself.’ Grainger makes it very easy to compare the two versions because he indicates the alterations on separate staves printed above the standard edition of the work.
Perhaps the most notable difference between the two versions of the Piano Concerto is that the revision by Grieg and Grainger is altogether brisker, especially at cadence points. It also provides fewer opportunities for soloist and conductor to display unasked for self-indulgence. On this point, Grieg held very strong opinions. His own recordings are full of rhythmic vitality and suppleness, but there is a total absence of excessive rubato. He wrote to his friend, the composer Julius Röntgen, ‘It is remarkable that the most talented performers of our age fall victim to the terrible “rubato influenza”. [Anton] Rubinstein never did anything like that. Nor did Liszt. “Sensation” is a serpent that threatens to devour great, genuine, noble art! Everyone conspires together—violinists, pianists, singers, and especially conductors. That damned “Let’s improve what the composer has written.”’ Any performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto that observes the spirit of Grainger’s edition will avoid those infelicities that so irritated Grieg.
Late in his life, Grieg proudly recalled the ecstatic reaction of his great mentor Liszt when he first played though the Piano Concerto and arrived at the coda: ‘A really divine episode I must not forget. Towards the end of the finale the second theme is…repeated in a mighty fortissimo. In the very last bars [when the first note of the triplet group is spectacularly changed from G sharp to G natural]…he suddenly stopped, rose up to full height, left the piano, and with big theatrical strides and arms uplifted, walked across the large hall, literally roaring the theme. “G, G, not G sharp! Splendid!”’ Even this momentous coup de théâtre underwent some minor modifications in 1907 with the introduction of an additional sforzandissimo and an extra grace note. These slight, yet telling, changes underline a point made by Grainger that the physically frail Grieg remained ‘extremely virile as an interpreter of his own works’ to the very end of his life.
Piano Concerto in B minor on fragments by Grieg
“This is beautiful, but I wonder, what comes next?”
Such were my thoughts upon hearing the first of three sketched themes for Grieg’s planned Second Piano Concerto. The question unfortunately remains unanswered, as the theme is unfinished and left suspended in mid air. We will never know why the plans for the concerto were abandoned so early, but it is possible that in 1883, aged forty and dedicating an ever-increasing amount of his time to the study and collection of Norwegian folk music, Grieg felt increasingly out of his depth in the larger musical forms.
It is certainly a great pity that such a universally beloved concerto as Grieg’s A Minor is without a companion piece, and the discovery of the existence of the 1883 B minor fragments piqued my curiosity. However it was not until February 1997 that I first saw the fragments, published by the Oslo Grieg Society and accompanied by an invitation to create a new concert piece using the pre-existing fragments, or elements from them. Notwithstanding that I do not consider myself a composer, and with no extensive history of orchestral writing, I felt this was a challenge not to be missed and gladly took up the baton! Despite being sure that the jury in this competition would be looking for an advanced, contemporary work, I chose instead to compose what I was sure Grieg would have intended; a—hopefully—romantic, beautiful piece full of ‘noble passion’ (to quote Evelyne Crochet). Of course though, I had to strike the delicate balance between using the original broken fragments (which, let us not forget, Grieg himself had chosen to discard or at the very least store for later revisions) and finding my own individual voice. Once I had hit upon the right beginning—the four notes B, A, D and F# from the opening theme—the whole work seemed to come to me in a near-continuous flow, assuming its form in the process: four through-composed movements forming a cyclic sonata structure with a spatial symmetry around the third movement, the E major Adagio, where the first theme is re-introduced a third above the tonic. With help from Grieg, I found my own ‘big tune’ by weaving together the four-note motif from the opening with the gorgeous theme from the middle movement from his Third Violin and Piano Sonata. The main theme of the Scherzo stems principally from Grieg’s second sketch, with a change of metre to 6/8 and it also embodies a secondary theme in C major recalling Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Additionally there is a strong similarity between that opera’s Prologue and Grieg’s original theme. Rachmaninov, whose favourite piano concerto was the Grieg A minor, was also a source of inspiration.
The finished entry was awarded neither a prize nor an honourable mention by the Oslo Grieg Society, but nevertheless the British critic Sir Stanley Sadie, editor-in-chief of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, having heard a two piano version performed by myself and Neil Dodd, gave it a warm recommendation. This led to a premiere in Oslo’s Freia Hall on June 18 1998, with the Norwegian Opera Orchestra conducted by Dejan Savic and soloist Geir Henning Braaten playing on Grieg’s Bechstein Grand from 1893. Despite its being well received in concert, the lack of press coverage caused the work to remain unperformed for the next eleven years (although I frequently played my own transcription of the Adagio for piano solo in concerts, and even on one occasion the whole work in its two piano version at the Norwegian Opera and Ballet in Oslo in July 2009). In 2009 the young Lithuanian pianist Lina Krepstaite chose the work for the opening concert of the Grieg/Ciurlionis Festival in Kaunas, Lithuania, on March 4, performing a revised version with changed orchestration and a cadenza extension with the City of Kaunas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Petras Bingelis. This time the work was critically as well as publicly acclaimed, and gradually found more champions including conductor/violinist Tobias Ringborg, pianists Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy and Misha Dacic, composer/pianist Wilfried Lingenberg, and above all Carl Petersson and Kerry Stratton, who have worked together with great enthusiasm and thoroughness to prepare the Concerto for recording. The present recording has seen a few minor alterations, the most important being a more note-faithful first presentation of the main theme.
I feel immensely honoured to have had this piece of whimsy recorded together with the magnificent A minor Concerto, and by the very best orchestra, conductor, soloist and technicians. I wrote it to commemorate my long-departed friend Bjarne Holten, to whom Grieg’s music was an inexhaustible source of comfort during years of illness and suffering. May it be a fitting tribute!
Grieg Song Transcriptions
I have been lucky to enjoy a long and varied career as a pianist working for 40-odd years for the Norwegian Opera and Ballet. All around Norway, and in later years on board the ‘Hurtigruten’ ships, I noticed a demand for piano interludes in operatic programmes, and this inspired me to write my own transcriptions of opera arias and songs. Soon it became an absorbing hobby, and without doubt was helpful when I came to compose the piano part for the Concerto. In total I have written some 17 transcriptions. Grieg’s music was inescapable, in demand as he is by music lovers of all countries alike, and he himself wrote several fine transcriptions of his songs. Beside the great song Ved Gjetlebekken (At the Mountain Stream) that concludes the wonderful Haugtussa (Mountain Maid) cycle, I have written transcriptions of the well-known song Med en vandlilje (With a Water Lily) set to a (rare!) light-hearted text by Ibsen and the exuberant En drøm (A Dream) to a text by the German poet Bodenstedt. This latter transcription is a real showpiece, and modelled on the Earl Wild Rachmaninov transcriptions. These two transcriptions were both written in 1994, and ten years later I transcribed the Adagio of the A minor Concerto for solo piano, and did the same to the Adagio of my own concerto, in order that it could be promoted in the absence of an orchestra.
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