Leif Ove Andsnes plays Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto.
At the end of the 19th century, Richard Strauss (1864−1949) perfected the tone poem. Using the most modern and intricate orchestration of his time, he lent evocative musical expression to narratives, fantasies and ideas. At the same time, Strauss created space for a more complex and ambigious character portrait than one might at first expect. The composer’s starting point was not the old stories about Don Juan from the Renaissance, but Nikolaus Lenaus’ unfinished Don Juan’s End from 1844, where the seducer falls into a depression over never finding the ideal woman, and ends up lonely, melancholy and suicidal. In Don Juan, Strauss uses the orchestra with a richly melodic and harmonic palate. Here, we can hear the sounds of his powers of seduction and insatiable pursuit of women, but also his doubt and dissatisfaction, and in the end, his desperation and depression. Don Juan was first performed in Weimar in 1899.
It was obvious which concerto should be selected for the Oslo Philharmonic’s very first concert, which took place in Gamle Logen on 27 September 1919. It had to be Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, which was already world famous across the world’s concert stages and had even been recorded. Grieg’s work was the very first piano concerto to be recorded in 1909, albeit in a shorter version as a result of the somewhat limited recording technology of the time. Since then, there have been countless recordings of what is perhaps the most famous work in Norwegian music history. In Gamle Logen in 1919, Fridtjof Backer Grøndahl was the soloist. He was deeply familiar with this concerto, and had performed it a few years earlier with Grieg himself conducting. A century later, this work remains equally popular and it is today performed by Leif Ove Andsnes and other acclaimed pianists.
Edvard Grieg’s (1843−1907) first great success, and perhaps the greatest one of his career, was his Piano Concerto in A Minor, which he composed in 1868, at the age of just twenty-five. The dramatic whirl of the timpani which leads us from silence to fiery music is one of the most effective and well-known openings in the classical repertoire. With this explosion, Grieg blazed his own way to Europe, and here, the touch of the composer can hardly be clearer. From the very first note, the soloist plays the motive which has been named “Grieg’s leading motive”. The little motive has an important role in the whole of Grieg’s production, and is probably inspired by the melodic turns of Norwegian folk music. The clearest connection to traditional music is still represented by the energetic halling rhythms in the third movement. Before the finale kicks off, Grieg reveals another of his strengths as a composer: the lyrical melody, and the evocative harmony and passion in the Adagio movement.
It’s natural to envisage fjords, mountains and Norwegian wilderness when Grieg’s Piano Concerto sounds in one’s ears, but the composer himself gazed out on a completely different landscape when he wrote the work at a summer house in the idyllic, albeit very un-Norwegian Søllerød in Denmark, in 1868. Musically, Grieg derived much inspiration from outside Norway. Notably, the concerto has many characteristics in common with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor (1845), which Grieg had heard as a young student in Leipzig in the 1850’s. Whether listeners’ associations to the Norwegian are inborn or culturally learned, Grieg’s Piano Concerto has become a pillar of Norwegian musical heritage, and has remained one of the world’s best known solo concertos ever since its world premiere in Copenhagen in 1869.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906−1975) was one year old when Grieg died in 1907, and the world had drastically changed when the young Russian composer burst onto the musical scene between the two world wars. As a modern and experimental composer, Shostakovich was forced to endure threats from the ruling regime all his life due to writing what it described as “formalistic music”; music which did not serve the Party’s interests. He balanced on a knife’s edge, writing ambiguous music where it’s difficult to discern the boundaries between satire and Social Realism, happiness and despair, and laughter and sorrow.
When Stalin died in 1953, Shostakovich had already composed nine symphonies - some preferred by the Communist party to others. The first great work he composed in a world without the man who was arguably his nemesis, was his tenth symphony − a work which goes to the extreme of the composer’s expressive powers. The second movement represents sheer musical violence. The strings hammer away mercilessly, and the woodwinds play so violently that the sound is distorted. After a while, the entire orchestra, including a snare drum, joins in on the monstrous play. Although it remains uncertain whether it was intentional, the movement is considered to be a fitting portrait of Stalin’s reign of terror.
After the terror of the second movement, the third movement opens with a mysterious string theme in an eerie night landscape, but suddenly a cheeky flute motive turns up, consisting of the tones D-Ess—C-H. This little motive is no less than the composer’s monogram. D-S(Ess)-C-H refers to the German spelling of his name: Dmitri SCHostakowitsch. It’s as if the composer is half hidden, poking fun at Stalin. Shostakovich adored musical codes like this, and the odd horn motive in the same movement is a reference to his great love Elmira Nazirova. The melody is made up of tones which in different note systems become E-La-Mi-Re-A.
The two strange middle movements are flanked by two grand symphonic movements of Romantic proportions. The opening movement is dark and solemn, with an expressivity reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. In the finale the darkness meets the composer’s sense of humour, oscillating between extreme points of expression and character before the movement ends grandly, but without entirely letting go of the sombre. In the final bars, the timpani thunder D-Ess-C-H, as if only to remind us of who is behind this masterpiece. Symphony no. 10 was first performed in Leningrad in 1953.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Leif Ove Andsnes; Photo: Gregor Hohenberg)Read more
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