Grieg - Piano Concerto: Full Works Concert highlight of the week

Two weeks of Hall of Fame favourites come to a close with a complete performance on Friday of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

The piece has its own fifteen minutes of fame thanks to a TV comedy sketch featuring Britain’s best loved comedy duo, Morecambe and Wise, and their guest star, the pianist and conductor Andre Previn. I wasn’t at all surprised to see this replayed in yet another Christmas montage show this year, even though it was first televised in 1971! The sketch, featuring Morecambe’s solo attempt at Grieg’s Piano Concerto, is like the music itself – we know every line and every quip, wait for the punch lines we know are coming just as we know every note and every phrase, yet never tire of hearing this music.  

Grieg was only 25 when he wrote his most ambitious work for the instrument he loved. He’d struggled for years to make a decent living, teaching piano students for poor pay and taking jobs as a conductor as and when he could. He’d also made little or no headway as a composer, and it wasn’t until he took his wife and baby daughter off on holiday to Denmark that the Norwegian finally gave himself the time and space to compose. With the holiday over, it was back to work as usual leaving Grieg frustrated by his lack of progress. He wrote to a friend “I have written a concerto for piano and orchestra, which I do believe has some good qualities. I should spend these autumn evenings instrumenting the first movement – aah, but the time!” Eventually Grieg found the much needed time and his concerto was finished, and received its first performance in Copenhagen on the 3rd of April, 1869. Although the Danish audiences applauded wildly, the response to the premiere in Grieg’s home country some months later was rather muted.

That winter, following the tragic death of their young daughter, Edvard and his wife Nina travelled to Rome. The lacklustre reception for his concerto at home, and the personal loss of their baby left Grieg at a low ebb, uncertain of his abilities and lacking confidence as a composer. It’s during those months in Rome that a meeting with the composer and pianist Franz Liszt becomes a game changer for Grieg. Enthusiastic about the score, and with no prior rehearsal, Liszt played the entire piano part of the concerto, including the technically difficult cadenza. Grieg was amazed, but he was even more delighted by Liszt’s response to his music. “Stay your course”, was Liszt’s instruction to the younger composer, “you have the ability needed – let nothing frighten you!” Grieg told his parents later “I cannot express the importance of his words. It was as though he initiated me. Many times when disappointments or bitterness are about to overwhelm me, my thoughts return to what he told me then, and my remembrance of that moment enables me to keep up my courage.”

The music certainly doesn’t lack courage. From those exuberant, ear-grabbing opening chords, famously attempted by Eric Morecambe, there’s a wealth of ideas in the concerto, but the criticism that Grieg the miniaturist simply stitches together short themes, denies his breadth of vision and the range of thematic ideas within the work. The second movement adagio in particular has some of Grieg’s most tender, poetic melodies ahead of the triumphant yet rewarding finale.

Now a Hall of Fame favourite, the piano concerto is a must for all concert pianists, and it’s at the very heart of Grieg’s reputation as the musical voice of his nation. His interest in Norwegian folk songs and melodies predate the English exploration of its music traditions by British composers Vaughan Williams and Holst, although Grieg is rarely credited with his role as one of the great nationalist composers who influenced a whole generation throughout Europe. It was a role recognised in his native Norway, where he was so famous and highly regarded, the government granted him an annuity in 1874, which meant he was comfortable for the remainder of his life. A proper recognition for composing one of the most loved of all piano concertos, and one which deserves to do better than its current position at number 27 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.