Movement 1: Allegro molto moderato
Movement 1: Cadenza
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Allegro moderato molto e marcato
Despite this enthusiastic reception, Grieg actually had some difficulty in persuading a publisher to accept the concerto—surely one of the ironies of business history. In fact, the piece was ushered into print only in 1872. It was, therefore, with merely the manuscript in his hand that Grieg visited Liszt in Rome in 1870 in order to get the great man’s blessing for his creative efforts. Liszt, surrounded by a coterie of admiring female acolytes, sight-read the piece with expert aplomb. He was gratifyingly captivated by the national elements in the work, and especially the modal inflections of the grand tune at the close. According to Grieg himself: ‘He stretched out his arm commandingly like an emperor and shouted “G, G! Not G sharp! Bravo!”.’ Taking farewell of his delighted younger colleague, he added the unforgettable words: ‘You carry on, my friend. You have the right stuff in you. And don’t ever let them frighten you!’
It is simple to see what attracted Liszt and Rubinstein in what was soon to become the most popular of all concertos. There is, to be sure, little that is original about the structure of the work—a more or less ‘sonata-form-made-easy’ Allegro molto moderato first movement, a hymn-like Adagio second movement (shades of Beethoven’s Emperor here), and an acerbically bouncy Allegro moderato molto e marcato finale, clearly influenced by the vigorous Halling folk-dance (in Grieg’s day a fixture at Norwegian weddings). But what really scores is the concerto’s magnificently memorable melodic invention—still irresistible even after 140 years of over-exposure—and the quasi-herbal intensity of its harmonization.
The latter has often-overlooked links to Mendelssohn’s so-called ‘Ossianic manner’: not surprisingly, perhaps, as both composers were influenced by Nordic national music. Indeed, the first subject tune of Grieg’s opening movement has a very similar harmonic and melodic outline to the Allegro theme of the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, just as the famous ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt exactly follows a harmonic scheme from the Hebrides Overture (it is no coincidence that the Grieg pieces are also in the same keys as the Mendelssohn). Another unmistakeable allusion is to Schumann’s piano concerto. Grieg obviously adapted its opening flourish to begin his own work—possibly a memory of student days in Leipzig, when he heard Clara Schumann herself play her husband’s masterpiece.
But if the Grieg concerto looks back to Schumann and Mendelssohn, it also looks forward to Ignacy Paderewski, who might almost have had the Norwegian composer’s score wide open on his desk when he wrote his own A minor piano concerto in 1888. Grieg’s wonderful work had swiftly become a template for the ‘national’ concerto style. Now, Paderewski’s piece is an impressive achievement—so why is it so little played in comparison to its forebear? The answer is simple: Grieg, like the devil, has all the best tunes.
from notes by Kenneth Hamilton © 2011