Much like his Nordic compatriot Jean Sibelius, composer Edvard Grieg found success in the western music world while managing to retain a distinctive voice. Grieg was born in Bergen on the west coast of Norway, where he spent his boyhood and much of his adult life. This dramatic landscape, with sheer-cliffed fjords, white capped ocean, and rocky coast were an inspiration to his creative spirit. From this secluded corner of Europe, Grieg forged a unique musical style that blended traditional western music with Norwegian folk tunes, harmonies, and rhythms.
Only in his mid twenties, and kept terribly busy teaching music in a small Norwegian city, Grieg was eager to compose a large scale work during his summer vacation in Copenhagen. This magnificent concerto is the product of his labors. Fashioned roughly on the Piano Concerto in A minor of Robert Schumann, the tone and flavor of the piece are uniquely Grieg's. The work was premiered by a friend of the composer, the dedicatee, Edmund Neupert.
This concerto begins with one of the most dramatic openings in any romantic piano concerto. A massive crescendo on the timpani introduces the piano, which demonstrates its entire range with a dramatic seven octave descent from the highest octave to the lowest tone. After so bold an opening, Grieg surprises us with a very tentative first theme, only venturing up two notes before retreating back again. This is repeated a third higher before blossoming into a reservedly expressive lyrical line played by clarinet and bassoon. These two widely differing musical moods, the miniature and the grandiose, set the stage for the very well-balanced, divergent movement. Brilliantly composed, Grieg nicely balances virtuosity with simplicity, articulation and lyricism, dynamics, tone, and emotional pacing. A cadenza by the composer comes near the end of the movement.
The second movement seems remarkably mature to come from a twenty-five year old composer. Profound in simplicity, the direct expressiveness is reminiscent of Beethoven's middle period adagios. This movement features lush harmonies, the warm timbre of low, soft strings, the dark colors of bassoon and clarinet, and prominent horn solos. This movement leads directly into the finale without a pause.
Grieg was saving the pianistic fireworks for this movement. From the outset, we are dazzled with brilliant arpeggios and scales that cover the gamut of the piano. There are also octave runs, gymnastic left-hand accompanimental figures, and fast passage work. We find a pleasant surprise towards the end of the movement where Grieg transforms the duple first theme into a waltz. This broadens into a grand finale for full orchestra and piano, ending with another fortissimo timpani roll.