Grieg's Piano Concerto - Program Notes cover

Grieg's Piano Concerto - Program Notes

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Zubin Mehta said of Spain’s pre-eminent pianist, “I have only heard this sound from Rubinstein,” while Sir Simon Rattle commented: “There is something special with Joaquín Achúcarro. Very few musicians can extract this kind of sound from the piano.” This not-to-be-missed debut is part of a program that includes Grieg’s ever popular Peer Gynt, musical fairy-tale ballet music by Stravinsky and a magical, mystical concerto from Finland that includes taped bird songs interacting with the orchestra.
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included!
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for Nov. 17 - 19. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
To meet tonight's Artists, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.





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Grieg's Piano Concerto - Program Notes

Tonight's Program

RUNE BERGMANN • CONDUCTOR

JOAQUÍN ACHÚCARRO • PIANO

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Selections from Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1, Op. 46

Morning Mood

In the Hall of the Mountain King

Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16

Allegro molto moderato Adagio

Allegro moderato molto e marcato

Joaquín Achúcarro

I N T E R M I S S I O N

Ainojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016)

Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) *

The Bog

Melancholy

Swans Migrating

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Suite from The Firebird (1919)*

Introduction

The Firebird and its Dance—The Firebird's Variation

The Princesses’ Khorovod (rondo)

Infernal Dance of Kashchei

Berceuse (Lullaby)

Final

Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907)

Edvard Grieg (1843 - 1907)

Selections from Peer Gynt

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 2 percussion, harp, strings

Performance time: 8 minutes

Background

You don't need to be Norwegian to know the traditional Norwegian hero Peer Gynt. He is the hero with a thousand faces who is an archetype in every culture… the young man who leaves home to face trials that test and build his character, then returns transformed into a mature adult. Grieg's Peer Gynt suites, his most popular compositions, trace the young hero's Orphic journey through the episodes depicted in playwright Henrik Ibsen's setting of the mythic tale.

Grieg composed the incidental music for the play in 1875. Its original version, geared to Ibsen's Shakespearean-scaled drama, spans 26 movements that encompass the play's five acts; from this material he extracted two four-movement suites.

What to Listen For

The melodious charms of Grieg's music for Peer Gynt are enormously appealing and have made some of the saga's characters—the hero's mother Ase, the seductive Anitra, the formidable Mountain King— seem as familiar as fairy-tale characters. But it's best not to get so comfortable with Peer Gynt that we lose track of its literary and musical heft.

Ibsen was Norway's most important writer, a dramatist to helped change the course of Western drama; Grieg was fully his equal in the musical sphere, and remains Norway's most famous composer more than a century after his death.

In Peer Gynt they took a rather ordinary folk tale—Ibsen complained to his publisher about its provincialism—and raised it to the level of a great national saga, with a hero whose transformative journey echoes those of similar heroes in world mythology ranging from Orpheus to Beowulf… from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield to the Irish hero Cuchulain… from Tamino in The Magic Flute to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.

In this context, when we hear Grieg's musical evocation of a sunrise and "morning mood," it is more than just poetic and painterly mood- setting. Each movement resonates with meaning in the epic journey that will transform Peer Gynt from an everyman into a hero.

As a first step in that journey, the serenity of a sunrise will give way to frightful ordeals. "Anitra's Dance" is not just vibrant and sensual, but also a temptation. The foreboding music of Peer Gynt's encounter in the Hall of the Mountain King is a test of his courage.

Grieg, too, complained about the material he had to work with in Peer Gynt. In a letter to a friend he makes the drama sound slow, lumbering and intractable. Yet the music he provided for it is unfailingly brisk, melodic and gripping—in part because he provided 26 separate movements comprising about 90 minutes' worth of music. The two extracted suites are only about one-third of the total.

Edvard Grieg: "Peer Gynt - Morning Mood"

---Berliner Philharmoniker

Video - 6:10

Video

Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg

Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, timpani, strings, solo piano Performance time: 30 minutes

Background

Though Edvard Grieg was a virtuoso pianist who originally expected to make his career as a soloist, his popular Concerto in A minor is his only concerto. He composed it during the summer of 1868, while on holiday in the Danish town of Søllerød. And though he never produced another (he started a B-minor concerto 14 years later, but never completed it), the singularity of this concerto does not reflect a lack of commitment to the form.

It is a passionate work that, together with its counterparts by Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Schumann, has formed the cinematic ideal of the piano concerto—fiery fortissimos, thundering chords and swirling arpeggios followed by portentous silences as the soloist's hands hang dramatically in the air.

Grieg is the subject of the Hollywood biopic Song of Norway. But in the case of this particular concerto, the cinematic quality extends to the young Grieg's composing process.

He began working on the concerto when he was only 24 and was looking ahead to a concert career. He was deeply influenced by the piano music of Robert Schumann, having heard Clara Schumann play the Schumann Piano Concerto in A when he was a student in Leipzig, and enormously admired both musicians.

Much is made of the similarities between Schumann's concerto and Grieg's—the stentorian, dramatic opening with its pyrotechnics that blaze their way up and down the keyboard, and much quieter, lullaby-like central movement with the reflective intimacy characteristic of so much of Schumann's piano music.

Despite his youth, Grieg gave his concerto a grandness that made it the biggest project he ever undertook. Success attended it from the time of its premiere in Copenhagen in April of 1869. The soloist's boundless enthusiasm for the work and the fervent public reaction surely encouraged Grieg to call on the most celebrated pianist of the day—Franz Liszt—in Rome the following year.

Liszt's fiery charisma as a performer was legendary, but we know him today for his quieter side—as an innovative composer, religious thinker, nurturer of young talent. He had already contacted Grieg after hearing an early violin sonata, and conferred upon him his highest accolades for a rising composer, praising not only his creativity but also his discipline.

Franz Liszt

Liszt in 1858 by Franz Hanfstaengl.

Franz Liszt

When they were together, Liszt honored Grieg by playing a two-piano version of the sonata with him; then Liszt astonished the younger composer by improvising his own version incorporating both parts for solo piano.

Grieg had brought the score of his concerto with him, but when Liszt proved eager to play through it with Grieg (two-piano arrangements were standard reductions for full-scale concertos), Grieg had to demur—he had not practiced the work enough to play it confidently.

This tantalizing predicament led to what is surely one of the most impressive and fateful incidents in the annals of musical sight-reading: Liszt took the full score and played through it without advance preparation, improvising his own solo piano reduction as he went. Accounts of this encounter depict Liszt growing more and more enthusiastic as he played.

Exaggerated? It's hard to say, but one can hardly imagine things having gone any other way.

Even Grieg, not a man given to exaggeration, described in a letter home Liszt's increasing excitement, and how at one point he bolted from the piano with his arms upraised, singing the dramatic main theme of the concerto at a fortissimo level.

"At the end," wrote Grieg, "he said to me…'You carry on, my friend; you have the real stuff in you. And don't ever let them scare you!'"

What to Listen For

This is a concerto that begins by seeming to announce its bold ambitions. After its intensely dramatic opening, it proceeds with a drumroll and a simple theme ornamented by the soloist. A second theme emerges in the cellos (favored by Grieg throughout his career), with trumpets spearheading a development section.

In the second movement, an introspective adagio, the piano plays rhapsodically over muted strings. A sequence of trills signals the entrance of the piano, which plays until the reintroduction of a stark, jagged reintroduction of the concerto's main theme.

The calmness of the adagio's opening eventually returns to the movement, leads directly into a third movement that is livelier—even rambunctious, with adventurous rhythmic groupings of 13, 22 and 27 notes.

Dance

Dance

This rousing finale has a characteristically Norwegian sound, thanks to the inclusion of a Norwegian folk-dance—the 'hurling,', or 'halling'— that develops into a brisk waltz as the movement progresses.

The folky textures in the strings emulate the sound of the Hardanger fiddle, an indigenous Norwegian instrument resembling a violin.

The Hardanger's size and playing technique give it a robust, vigorous sound. Fans of PBS' Antiques Road Show may recall seeing examples of this fascinating variant, with its brightly painted ornamentation that somehow goes with its sound. A brilliant, virtuosic cadenza brings the concerto to a close.

Grieg - Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16

Video: 29:40

Video

Einojuhani Rauttavaara (1928 - 2016)

Einojuhani Rauttavaara (1928 - 2016)

Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, strings

Performance time: 18 minutes

Background

Success came gradually for the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. But by the time of his death in July of this year, he had achieved worldwide acclaim as a composer, teacher and writer. His music, which is characterized by stylistic flexibility but also by a distinctive sound-world, includes nine operas, eight symphonies, a dozen concertos (including one for chorus), and a broad range of chamber, vocal and instrumental compositions. Cantus Arcticus is one of his most widely performed works.

Part of the 20th-century flowering of Finnish composers, Rautavaara began piano studies at 17 and went on to study musicology at Helsinki University.

He received his diploma in composition from the Sibelius Academy in 1957. But by that time, Sibelius himself had already chosen Rautavaara as the young Finnish composer of his choice for a scholarship for studies in the U.S. Here he worked with Vincent Persichetti at The Juilliard School and with Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood.

From the mid-1980s onward, his compositions have enjoyed extraordinary success and garnered a worldwide following. His style, which is broadly accessible without compromising it depth or nuance, is often associated with those of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.

What to Listen For

The subtitle "Concerto for Birds and Orchestra" is both a description and a notice to us listeners to leave our preconceptions behind.

Commissioned by the University of Oulu (Finland) for its first doctoral degree ceremony, the concerto was composed in 1972 and incorporates birdsongs recorded in the bog country of northern Finland, near the Arctic Circle.

Unlike the French composer Olivier Messaien, who was an ornithologist and for whom birds were a recurrent and dominant element in composition, Rautavaara was not obsessed by the avian world. But he did share Messaien's appreciation of birdsong as music.

In the Cantus Arcticus, Rautavaara integrates the compelling sounds of the bird species of the far north into a classical composition in three movements.

In the first movement, they intertwine with opening statements in the woodwinds. The second movement, slower and more introspective, uses a manipulated (slowed) recording of the shore lark's song to create a feeling of melancholy. The final movement, structured around the majestic sounds of whooper swans, seems to trail into infinity—appropriate, perhaps, for new Ph.D. recipients reaching for far horizons.

Concerto for Birds and Orchestra “Cantus Arcticus”

---Einojuhani Rautavaara: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra “Cantus Arcticus”, Op. 61

Segerstam, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Video: 19:25

Video

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)

Suite from The Firebird (1919)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (second doubling on English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, harp, piano/celesta, strings

Performance time: 23 minutes

Background

Many scholars, including the distinguished Russian-born musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, thought of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky as opposites. The same could even be said of Stravinsky himself. But sometimes it's just a thin line that separates opposites, and that seems to have been the case with these two supremely gifted Russian composers, whose lives overlapped by a decade.

Though they did not know each other, both were mentored by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and compositions for the ballet anchored both men's careers. Yet Tchaikovsky's deep insecurities prevented him from believing in his own success, while Stravinsky believed in his own greatness before its evidence came before the public. It was his ballet score The Firebird that would provide the needed breakthrough.

In 1908, just before he began work on The Firebird, Stravinsky was 26 and was still greatly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov, whose iridescent harmonies and traditional virtuosity were still strongly evident in Stravinsky's compositions, almost all of which remained unpublished.

Without a major commission, Stravinsky was receptive to a suggestion from Rimsky-Korsakov for an opera based on an enchanting tale from Hans Christian Andersen, "Le Rossignol."

After a year of experimentation and false starts with "Le Rossignol," an improbable series of coincidences brought Stravinsky the commission for The Firebird, his breakthrough ballet for Serge Diaghilev's prestigious Ballets Russes.

Setting Andersen's tale aside, Stravinsky suddenly found himself in a hothouse of international talent: The Ballets Russes' dancers included Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska, its settings and costumes were designed by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Leon Bakst, and its productions embodied all the artistic richness and ferment of Paris in the Art Deco era preceding World War I.

With characteristic boldness, Diaghilev had given Stravinsky this assignment based on a single hearing of a rather slender score; its success made the composer's reputation overnight.

Firebird

Photograph of Michel Fokine as Prince Ivan and Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird in The Firebird, 1910. Image via Library of Congress.

Firebird

It was the beginning of a transformative musical journey that continued with Petrushka and the epoch-making The Rite of Spring. In less than five years, this astounding collaboration caused sophisticated Parisians to riot at the sound of a new and revolutionary sound in music far beyond anything Rimsky-Korsakov imagined.

What to Listen For

"Shimmering" is a word often used to describe the ethereal beauty of Stravinsky's score for The Firebird. But when balletomanes first encountered it in 1909, both the look and the sound of this work had the power to shock.

Where 19th-century ballets were dominated by elegance and picturesque delicacy on stage and in the pit, The Firebird substituted a story rooted in folk traditions that seemed primitive by comparison, even including human sacrifice. The music booms with emphatic percussion and is not afraid of dissonance. Yet it also shines with melodies that are almost magical, capturing the sense of human awe in the midst of nature's eternal vastness.

In his next two ballets, Stravinsky would go even further in combining sophisticated musical craft with folk elements that seemed shockingly primitive to his contemporary listeners.

"For me, the most striking effect in The Firebird was the natural- harmonic string glissando near the beginning, which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine wheel," Stravinsky wrote. "I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky-Korsakov's violinist and cellist sons."

Though he was still in his twenties, it was not the first time he had used the orchestra to evoke fireworks. His Feu d'artifice, or Fireworks, was composed a year before The Firebird. It was this sparkling orchestral fantasy that had so impressed Diaghilev, leading to their collaboration.

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Vienna Philharmonic

Conductor - Maestro Valery Gergiev

Video: 47:13

To meet tonight's Artists, please click here.

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.

chamber, vocal and instrumental compositions. Cantus Arcticus is one of his most widely performed works.

Part of the 20th-century flowering of Finnish composers, Rautavaara began piano studies at 17 and went on to study musicology at Helsinki University. He received his diploma in composition from

the Sibelius Academy in 1957. But by that time, Sibelius himself had already chosen Rautavaara as the young Finnish composer of his choice for a scholarship for studies in the U.S. Here he worked with Vincent Persichetti at The Juilliard School and with Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood.

From the mid-1980s onward, his compositions have enjoyed extraordinary success and garnered a worldwide following. His style, which is broadly accessible without compromising it depth or nuance, is often associated with those of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.

What to Listen For

The subtitle "Concerto for Birds and Orchestra" is both a description and a notice to us listeners to leave our preconceptions behind.

Commissioned by the University of Oulu (Finland) for its first doctoral degree ceremony, the concerto was composed in 1972 and incorporates birdsongs recorded in the bog country of northern Finland, near the Arctic Circle.

Unlike the French composer Olivier Messaien, who was an ornithologist and for whom birds were a recurrent and dominant element in composition, Rautavaara was not obsessed by the avian world. But he did share Messaien's appreciation of birdsong as music. In the Cantus Arcticus, Rautavaara integrates the compelling sounds of the bird species of the far north into a classical composition in three movements. In the first movement, they intertwine with opening statements in the woodwinds. The second movement, slower and more introspective, uses a manipulated (slowed) recording of

the shore lark's song to create a feeling of melancholy. The final movement, structured around the majestic sounds of whooper swans, seems to trail into infinity—appropriate, perhaps, for new Ph.D. recipients reaching for far horizons.

Video