Boris Giltburg on Grieg's Piano Concerto

Pianist Boris Giltburg explores Grieg's masterpiece in a series of guest blogs for BBC Music Magazine

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Boris Giltburg on Grieg's Piano Concerto
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“We will begin with Beethoven’s Leonore overture—something serious to start with; then Grieg’s piano Concerto, this is already lighter music; then, after the interval, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue—lighter still; and then several Johann Strauss numbers to finish with.”

I nodded somewhat dubiously at this plan for a New Year’s concert. Not because of the choice of works—I thought it was a wonderful programme—but rather because of the designation of Grieg’s piano concerto as ‘lighter music’. No, it isn’t, I was thinking rebelliously, it’s beautiful and deep and lyrical and passionate and full of fire, and, and…!

I have always found the thought that the concerto is sometimes considered a students’ piece (a fate also shared by Grieg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 7)—great music but not too challenging, a good choice for young musicians. Strange, as right from the opening cascade of chords, through the cadenza of the first movement, and up to the finale—and especially its coda—the concerto is – honestly – really difficult: there are long double octave passages, big leaps in both hands, uncomfortable runs in thirds (a personal challenge for me!), quick and light finger-work, roaring scales spanning the keyboard, chord tremolos—a formidable array. And through it all, an unwritten requirement for mastery of touch, colour and articulation, as none of the above is for showing off (well, perhaps a few passages in the finale), but rather is just one building block in the musical tapestry.  

The cadenza of the first movement shows an especially wonderful meshing of technique and atmosphere. After the orchestral blast has died away, the piano begins with a series of exploring statements, a mini-monologue. At some point, the music dies away into silence.

And then, out of this black background appears the main melody of the concerto, completely transformed from its original dance-like character. Played in octaves—as if there were two voices singing as one—with a tremolo in the middle voice, and left-hand arpeggios running up and down like waves. And all of this in pianissimo, an eerie, hollow sound, like some kind of keening coming from the earth itself.

Grieg then masterfully uses the voices surrounding the melody—the tremolo and the left hand arpeggios—to build up a huge crescendo, culminating in an explosive, biting passage in double octaves. This descent brings us to the big climax of the cadenza: another repeat of the main theme, this time in triple forte chords, interspersed with roaring whirlwinds of notes in the lowest part of the keyboard.

The melody then continues passionately, surrounded by cascades of descending arpeggios (and visually by a flurry of hand activity), then hesitates and stops, before attempting one last desperate recall of the main theme. This subsides gradually, and a very hushed orchestra takes over from the piano just as the music is about to disappear. The cadenza is demonstrably virtuosic, and yet the lingering impression is not of bravura passage-work but of a large-scale dramatic scene—almost a self-contained piece, which Grieg, with utmost efficiency, constructed using no more than eight bars of music from the movement itself.

Passion and fire are just one side of the concerto and of Grieg’s music in general; beauty and benevolence are another.

For me the latter two are inseparably tied with nature in Grieg’s works; I often have the feeling that Grieg had such an instinctive connection to his native landscapes that they became an integral part of his musical DNA, manifested particularly strongly in his slow movements and lyrical themes.

In this he is close to Sibelius, though the nature which Sibelius’ music invokes is often austere and awe-inspiring: sheer cliffs, leaden seas, snow-swept lands. Grieg’s nature, on the other hand, seems to be suffused with warmth, it’s tender and caring.

I think this connection with nature is felt in the second subject of the first movement; broad and embracing when played by the orchestra, personal and dreamy when taken by the pianist.

Similarly in the middle section of the finale: a sweet, clear song, surrounded by fluttering wings. An inspired orchestration: flute with high strings playing tremolos sul ponticello (with the bow on the bridge, producing that special sound you’re hearing); and what a stroke of genius to bring it after a long and extremely fiery passage in the piano (very satisfying to play!)—like fresh mountain air to cool off the heat. 

And most of all, the entire second movement, which from beginning to end seems to me a deeply beautiful combination of nature and emotion. Its simple structure is modeled at least somewhat on the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto—same long orchestral opening, played by the strings in the middle register, hushed in sound and profound, almost reverent in mood; same ‘aah…’ feeling as the piano enters high above with a new theme, as if the clouds open and moonlight falls on the scene; same feeling of even greater wonder as the piano’s theme is repeated in a different, more distant key.

Where the two differ is the continuation: both composers finish the movement with a full repeat of the orchestral opening, now with the piano participating. But while Beethoven’s treatment is calm, bringing back the mood of the opening, Grieg makes this repeat the climax of the movement—both piano and orchestra in full splendour, as if the previously moonlit landscape was now shown in full, majestic daylight. A beautiful dialogue between the piano and the orchestra until the very end, this is for me Grieg at his most poetic, most touching and most magical.

 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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