Damian Thompson

Glorious Grieg

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Eternally fresh. That’s how Grieg’s Piano Concerto is described by programme notes, Classic FM, etc. Though, to be honest, eternally stale is nearer the mark. No 19th-century warhorse has been submitted to such regular thrashing since it was written in 1868. In the early days of the Proms, where I heard it last week, they would sometimes schedule it twice in one season.

Don’t get me wrong: the work is a masterpiece. Edvard Grieg’s only masterpiece, indeed, which is sad, considering that he composed it at the age of 25 and produced nothing of comparable stature in the remaining 40 years of his life. It begins with a drum roll followed by the most celebrated rhetorical flourish in the history of piano concertos — a cannonade of double octaves fired down the keyboard. I asked a pianist friend if it was nerve-racking to play. Not normally, he said — but if by any chance one of your hands misjudges an octave, then even the deaf old lady in the gods will notice. (There’s a live recording by Michelangeli with a minuscule smudge in the phrase, which must have mortified the icy perfectionist.)

The Grieg is not only full of lovely tunes: it also develops them using piquant, occasionally savage harmonies that were years ahead of their time. Antony Hopkins, the composer and broadcaster whose Talking About Music series was one of the glories of Radio 3 in the 1970s (and who’s happily still with us, aged 91), reckons that, ‘apart from Wagner, Grieg should be given credit for being one of the very first composers to use harmony of quite such chromatic richness. Certainly he must have had a considerable influence on Delius.’ Actually, Delius once teased Ravel that fin de siècle French music was ‘simply Grieg plus the Third Act of Tristan’. Ravel conceded the point — but then he loved Grieg and once had the honour of playing one of the Norwegian Dances to the composer. ‘More rhythm!’ said Grieg, jumping up from his chair and skipping around the room to demonstrate Nordic peasant steps. Must have been quite a sight, given that he was about the size of a goblin.

You can hear that skipping motion in the finale of the Piano Concerto. But any rustic naivety is offset by the sophistication of the solo writing. The first-movement cadenza, in particular, surrounds a fortissimo statement of the main theme with sparkling trills and smoochy arpeggios that had early audiences reaching for the smelling salts. It was Grieg, not Schumann or Tchaikovsky, who taught composers how to introduce great splashes of showing-off into their concertos. He spawned dozens and dozens of imitations by now forgotten figures; I have a long-term project to listen to every neglected romantic piano concerto on record, and it’s hard not to curse Grieg for giving modestly talented professors of music such fancy ideas.

I wasn’t cursing him at the Proms, though. I was there not for the piece but for the performer: Steven Osborne, a self-effacing Scottish pianist whose delicacy of touch is allied to a gigantic technique. In the French repertoire, I’d choose his Debussy Preludes, Ravel Gaspard and Messiaen Vingt Regards (all on Hyperion) above even Pierre-Laurent Aimard; you have to go back to Gieseking to find a pianist who can make the keyboard whisper so tenderly. Osborne didn’t disappoint in the Grieg, lifting and tinting the textures so expertly that it sounded as if he was switching between different pianos. The BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds didn’t match him for colour, but never mind.

Given that the level of invention in the piece is so high, why does it often fail to capture our imagination? It’s not just that we’ve heard it too often. As my pianist friend explained — and you’d never guess this from listening to it — the Grieg is not terribly difficult to play compared with other concertos. This encourages good musicians to get lazy, and soloists with rudimentary skills to release their inner Liberace.

For an example of the latter, try listening to a 1954 recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto by Winifred Atwell, the Trinidadian honky-tonk pianist who was the first black person to have a Number One hit in the UK singles chart. She is accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanford Robinson and makes a decent fist of it, at least most of the time. But Decca failed to push the record very hard — possibly because, alas, Atwell slows down during the difficult bits. Not even Grieg’s evergreen masterpiece can survive that.