Recently an old friend of mine, Stuart Mitchell, sent me a recording he made of the Grieg Piano Concerto with the orchestra part adapted for string quartet. I am in awe, but also feeling rather jealous as for any musician (good, bad or otherwise) the ultimate challenge and achievement is to play a piano concerto. Mitch runs his own successful financial institution and what amazes me is how he has found time to practice (2 hours a day) and learn a work of this magnitude.
I can’t begin to tell you what a tremendous achievement this is and I feel rather inadequate. Not only that but the recording is rather good. Please don’t ask me what I have achieved piano-wise in the last eight months apart from growl at my daughter when her arpeggios fall apart.
The recording I am going to recommend this week is the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor Op 16 and Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54 performed by the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Both composers only wrote one piano concerto and apart from being amongst the most popular these have two of the best known openings in the entire concerti repertoire.
Robert Schumann was born in 1810 and died in an asylum in 1856 having been troubled throughout his life with severe depression. In 1829 Schumann began experimenting with chiroplast, a mechanical mechanism to try and strengthen his fingers, this, combined with practicing for 7 hours a day meant he caused permanent damage to his hands and had to give up playing the piano. Therefore, his wife Clara became his chief intermediary vis-a-vis the piano. Infact it was Clara, herself a spectacular virtuoso pianist, who performed the piano concerto at its premiere performance.
The concerto opens with a bold descending flourish of chords, the rest of the movement focuses on one theme which continually takes on new shapes and sounds. The slow movement is extremely beautiful and leads straight into the boisterous Finale which is swept along by it’s waltz like rhythm giving an air of celebration.
The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg 1843-1907 wrote his piano concerto in in 1868, he was very influenced by Schumann's works and as such his concerto is often compared to Schumann’s not least because they are both in the same key.
Grieg realised at a young age that the future of his country’s art lay not in the Germanic models but in tapping into the rich heritage of folk song. He expressed himself most successfully in miniature forms - his songs and brief piano works such as the Lyric Pieces.
This concerto was his only significant large scale work and it was this that gave him international fame. After one of the best known openings in the entire concerto repertoire, the theme is then melancholy and warm. The second movement has some of the most tender and poetic melodies that Greig ever penned. The last movement follows on directly, led off by an almost march like theme, modelled on the ‘springdans’ (leaping dance), a Norwegian folk step.
Pianist Lief Ove Andsnes was born in Norway in 1970 and studied at the Bergan Music Conservatory. He now gives recitals and plays concertos in the world’s leading concert halls with its foremost orchestras as well as being an active recording artist. Described by the Wall Street Journal as “one of the most gifted musicians of his generation”.