Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 16, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Brahm Van Den Berg
The 150th birthday of Edvard Grieg, in 1993, was grandly celebrated in his native Norway, which had indeed never forgotten him. The anniversary was at least acknowledged elsewhere, the recording industry being particularly helpful in this respect. 1993 may well have been instrumental (hoary pun intended) in restoring to circulation and a goodly measure of respectability such treasures as that composer’s Peer Gynt score and Piano Concerto, his two most familiar large-scale works.
The Piano Concerto was written during the summer of 1868 and reflects its 25-year-old composer’s contentedness with his surroundings, a secluded cottage in the Danish countryside, and the companionship of his wife and newborn daughter. The premiere, a huge success, by the way – this is not one of those works that had to wait to ﬁnd critical and audience acceptance – took place in Copenhagen the following April, with Grieg as the soloist.
The Concerto is launched by those familiar chords, the piano’s octaves sweeping the keyboard from top to bottom, then ascending again in giant arpeggios. It’s certainly an attention-grabbing opening, but also somewhat of a red herring (Nordic- waters pun unintentional), as is the case with another concerto everyone supposedly knows, Tchaikovsky’s First. Grieg’s opening gives the mistaken impression that heaven- storming is to be the movement’s preoccupation, when, in fact, a tender lyricism prevails, starting with the subsequent main theme (as in the Tchaikovsky, the opening passages are merely introductory material), announced by the woodwinds and taken up by the solo piano.
But the killer tune — a supreme example of the composer’s melodic inventiveness — is the bittersweet second theme. Liszt, a strong supporter of the young Grieg, suggested that it be announced by solo trumpet, advice which Grieg eagerly accepted. And so it appeared in the ﬁrst published edition (1872). Subsequently, however, Grieg, who knew from the start a thing or two about orchestration, changed it to the version now heard, the theme announced by the cellos. A mellow masterstroke, as it turned out.
Movement two begins with a gentle, folk-like melody sung by the muted strings, whereupon the piano enters with its own, separate theme. High register piano trills usher in, without pause, the ﬁnale which, after some grandstanding virtuoso brilliance, settles into the kind of theme Grieg did best: an exquisitely simple-seeming inspiration, purely Norwegian in its melodic cast, yet laid out for ﬁngers on a piano by a hand that knew, and revered, Chopin.