Grieg was is not usually associated with the world of concerti however his one and only Piano Concerto has proved to be amongst the most popular in the repertoire. It was composed as Op.16 in 1868, when Grieg was only 24 years old, and divides as you might expect, into three contrasting movements. These movements follow the tried and tested fast- slow- fast selection of tempi but the structure of each is innovative. The concerto is scored for a modest orchestra when compared to other concerti, with double woodwind, two trumpets, and trombones, a tuba, timpani, and strings. Two French Horns appeared in later editions.
Grieg Piano Concerto Difficulty
It is impossible to overlook the influence of Robert Schuman in this concerto. We know that Grieg heard the eminent Clara Schuman perform her husband’s concerto in Leipzig, Germany in 1858. The performance made a lasting impression on Grieg as did Clara. Influence is one thing, but this is not to say that Grieg in any way mimicked or plagiarised Schuman’s Concerto; far from it.
The approach Grieg takes to the essence of his concerto is quite a different one, drawing as it does from his heritage and the folk song of Norway. A well-documented example of this is considered to be demonstrated in the opening piano solo. Here in the descending piano line the intervals of a minor second followed by a major third (A – G#; G# – E), are a common occurrence in Norwegian folk music.
The question of difficulty arises. Like so many piano concertos, there is a natural curiosity about just how challenging they are to play. Is it that we are simply seduced by the display of apparent virtuosity in believing that the concerto is more difficult than it is; or is the performance worthy of great praise for its genuinely astonishing achievement?
As a small point of note, Liszt was visited by Grieg in 1870 in Rome. If the accounts of the meeting are true, Liszt played the entire concerto through at sight. He then went on to heap compliments on Grieg for his work that in turn influenced Liszt’s later piano music. Liszt was unquestionably a formidable pianist, so perhaps we can not simply judge the difficulty of the Grieg Piano Concerto so lightly.
Whilst there are virtuosic passages in the Grieg concerto, it is much more a tone poem than a platform for technical demonstration. Grieg is felt by many academics not to have been a pianist in the same vein as Liszt, Chopin, or Rachmaninov. Whilst he did perform this concerto the content of the music is in some ways reflective of the composer’s pianistic style. This is not a compromise, as the concerto is beautifully written and falls nicely under the fingers for the most part.
With the opening tempo marking of around 84 beats per minute (Allegro molto moderato), the initial passage for solo piano needs practice but is not in itself overly difficult. As the concerto moves into an ‘Animato’ section a slightly more tricky section emerges that requires a lightness of touch. There are some chromatic passages in thirds that also just require some preparation as we move towards the second theme. As the music develops Grieg includes one or two bars with parallel octaves that bring a degree of technical challenge that need power without force to answer the orchestral question.
The cadenza is a little area of consideration in its own right. What you have here is ideas from the movement as you might anticipate but expanded and played on the piano alone. Like so much of this wonderful work, even though the score of the cadenza looks fierce, it lies under the fingers well, although careful thought needs to be applied to the lyric content and the musical flow to avoid an overly mechanical delivery. A brief coda concludes the first movement with the final bars requiring not inconsiderable strength and dexterity to play.
Sometimes the perception of central slow movements is one where the technicalities are felt to be less demanding. It is my feeling that in the Grieg Concerto one is faced with some of the most challenging elements in terms of interpretation if not technique. The key shifts radically from the first movement in A minor, to D flat major with a tempo marking of ‘Adagio’. For me, this movement is Grieg at his lyrical best, full of the sounds of Norway and rich with emotion. Great and consistent control of tone is a feature of this movement that has to be present so that the full spectrum of expression can effortlessly emerge through the orchestral texture. Poise and elegance contrast with moments of intense passion in this movement making it one of the more difficult to play convincingly.
The Finale brings a characteristic lightness of mood as the tempo picks up to a moderate ‘Allegro’ and after a short piano flurry the music steps assertively back to the key of the opening movement (A minor). Energy is abundant throughout this movement and even though the soloist has already played two previous movements, enough stamina must be available for the Finale. Whilst there are small sections that on a purely technical level must be meticulously fingered, the music does not have huge expectations of a seasoned pianist.
Mini cadenzas link the sections allowing the soloist to show a little virtuosic skill but never at the expense of the structure. Towards the middle of the Finale, some passages again require a secure technique with some inner-voice movement that can be hard for the fingers to cope with. A lyrical second theme brings a warmth to the exuberance of the Finale, leaving the piano almost totally alone to play the new material and cast a new spell.
Grieg multiplies the technical demands as we hear the first theme return but varied. The concerto reaches an enlivened ‘Presto’ in three-four times as the soloist shows their agility through a rush of arpeggio and scalic figures only to return the tonic major (A major) for the very last section of the concerto. The sense of triumph and celebration dominates as the concerto ends.