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Grieg: Concerto or Piano and Orchestra in A Minor

The timpani roll in the first measure announces one of the most extraordinary solo entries in the literature: the three octave tumble and rebound in A minor that nearly everyone associates with Grieg and by extension with Norway.In fact, the opening of Grieg’s concerto is in clear homage to the similar beginning of Schumann’s Piano concerto, a work likewise in A minor; any number of other specifics of the style seem descended from Schumann as well.The Norwegian folklike sensations result from rhythmic and metric dvices which exert a strong influence on the thematic material, and of characteristic melodic shapes—though Grieg’s melodies are newly fashioned, not borrowed from folk sources.

But his biggest orchestral work, the concerto, is both compact and traditional of form. The famous first them yields to an animated transition and, for a second subject, a fervent statement from the cellos and brass choir. This passage, one of exceptional warmth, lends itself to embellishment and completion by the soloist. A turbulent development juxtaposes the material of the opening flourish and the first theme; after a fanfare from the trumpets, the piano enters to prepare the way for the recapitulation, the farfares in the winds growing louder at first, then receding into a soft dynamic for the return. There is nothing especially striking about the formal procedure from here on, but it is worth noticing, at the recapitulation of the cello theme, how much less soulful it sounds only a few steps lower, but beneath the most brilliant range of the instrument. The cadenza embraces a recapitulation of the main theme, carried on by the orchestra when it sidles back in. Grieg continues trippingly to the end, piu allegro,  in a short coda. The piano returns to its opening cascades.

D-flat major, the key of the second movement, is about as far as you can go from A minor, the overall key of the work. This Adagio  has the character of an intermezzo, the theme first stated by muted strings with punctuations from the horns an bassoons. The cadential close, reluctant to relinquish its grip, is surely meant to evoke herdsmen’s horncalls and their echoes. The pianist has the improvisatory second subject; after a brief departure, the main theme returns in a much denser scoring, the melody in canon between the piano and the tenor instruments, and concludes in the same insistent cadence. 

With a sudden fanfare, pianissimo but hair-raising in the way it affects the tonality, the clariets and bassoons force the harmony back down into A minor and introduce the last movement. The main material is in the character of a waddlig march based on a Norwegian dance (the hulling); the throbbing half-step suspensions in the piano part at first colour the main pitches of the theme, thenachieve identity as an important motive in their own right. After a little cadenza, there follows a Chopinesque interlude. More thrilling still is the moment when, after the full cadenza near the end, the duple march is thrust into a waltz-like perpetuum mobile.  Grieg concludes, as is so common with nationalist composers, in a chorale of affirmation and triumph.

It was liszt’s not especially good idea to suggest some changes in the orchestration to Grieg during one of his visits to Italy. (A trumpet solo, for example, instead of cellos for the second theme of the first movement.) The first publication of the score incorporates these, but Grieg later thought the better of them and published a corrected version (1879) that returns to his original ideas.

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