Grieg's Beautiful Simplicity

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

I don't think I've sat down at my piano for more than five minutes since I first started collecting compact discs a decade ago. When I can have an Artur Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, or Emanuel Ax perform without an error (or a scratch, pop or tick) in my own living room, why should I settle for the utterly amateur playing of a Fred Flaxman?

Instead, a few years ago I took a blank audiocassette and transferred to it professional recordings of all the piano pieces I used to play. I labeled the cassette: "PIECES I TRY TO PLAY, PLAYED THE WAY I'D LIKE TO PLAY THEM." Under the title I typed: "Fred Flaxman at the piano (in his dreams)."

Several composers are represented on that tape, but none as frequently as Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). This romantic Norwegian, who wrote mainly for the piano and turned out one gorgeous melody after another, is still one of my favorite composers. But, before the advent of the compact disc, his solo piano music was not so easy to find on recordings.

I've often wondered why this beautiful music was neglected by professional musicians for so long. I don't know for sure, but my guess is that they considered it beneath their talents to perform pieces which were so easy to play that they were used around the world by beginning and intermediate piano students like myself.

All that has changed now. There are 10-CD sets of Grieg's complete piano music by two different artists: Eva Knardahl on BIS and Einar Steen-Nokleberg on Naxos. What has happened to bring this about? Two things, I guess.

First of all, I doubt that as many kids are learning how to play the piano nowadays as when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s. Many parents -- particularly Jewish parents -- felt that piano (or violin) lessons were an essential part of a child's education. The abandonment of the piano by amateurs has left Grieg's Grandmother's Minuet, Op. 68, No. 2; Waltz, Op. 12, No. 2, Album Leaf, Op. 12, No. 7; Melodie, Op. 38, No. 3; Notturno, Op 54, No. 4, At Your Feet, Op. 68, No. 3 -- the delightful Lyric Pieces I used to play -- to the professionals.

Secondly, the price of recording equipment and CD manufacturing has come down to the point that everyone seems to be issuing CDs these days, and everything that has ever been composed, from Gregorian chant to Alfredo Fettuccini's Concerto for Computer, Cockerspaniel and Dishwasher Obligato, is now being recorded. In any case, the 10 books of Lyric Pieces provide some of the best sources for impressionistic, sometimes childlike, often folk-song-based, melancholy and happy melodies in the entire piano repertoire.

None of these 66 short piano compositions, published originally between 1867 and 1910, is based on a Norwegian folk melody, although many of them sound as if they were. And they are uneven when it comes to melodic inspiration. They are not all "must haves," by any means, and you might prefer a single CD with the very best of the lot. If I were recording these works (and are you lucky I'm not!), here's what I would play in addition to the pieces mentioned above:

The Most Lyric of the Lyric Pieces

  • Alfedans (Fairy Dance), Op. 12, No. 4
  • Berceuse, Op. 38, No. 1
  • Kanon (Canon), Op. 38, No. 8
  • all six pieces of Opus 43
  • Albumblad (Album Leaf), Op. 47, No. 2
  • Melodi (Melody), Op. 47, No. 3
  • Gjettergutt (Shepherd's Boy), Op. 54, No. 1
  • Gangar (Norwegian March), Op. 54, No. 2
  • Trolltop (March of the Dwarfs), Op. 54, No. 3
  • Hjemve (Homesickness), Op. 57, No. 6
  • Fransk serenade (French Serenade), Op. 62, No. 3
  • Drommesyn (Phantom), Op. 62, No. 5
  • Hjemad (Homeward), Op. 62, No. 6
  • Fra ungdomsdagene (From early years), Op. 65, No. 1
  • Bondens sang (Peasant's Song), Op. 65, No. 2
  • Bryllupsdag pa Troldhaugen (Wedding Day at Troldhaugen), Op. 65, No. 6
  • Badnlat (At the Cradle), Op. 68, No. 5
  • Valse melancolique (Melancholy Waltz), Op. 68, No. 6
  • Sommeraften (Summer Eve), Op. 71, No. 2
  • Smatroll (Puck), Op. 71, No. 3
  • Skogstillhet (Peace of the Woods), Op. 71, No. 4
  • Efterklang (Remembrances), Op. 71, No. 7

Impressionistic Names

The names Grieg gave his pieces were right on the dime -- not that you would be able to guess in advance, just by hearing the work, what it would be called. But, once heard, Peace of the Woods sounds just like that; Puck sounds very, well, puckish; Summer Eve evokes that very mood; as does Homesickness. Melancholy Waltz, Remembrances, Grandmother's Minuet, and March of the Dwarfs are all equally well named, though all of these pieces are just as enjoyable without knowing what they are called.

Almost all Greig's piano music is very lyrical, not just the ten opuses which are called Lyric Pieces. Some of the others were based on authentic Norwegian folk tunes. Here are my other favorites:

Other Great Grieg Piano Pieces

  • Mazurka, Op. 1, No. 3
  • Andante con sentimento, Op. 3, No. 4
  • Sonata for Piano Solo, Op. 7
  • "Last Saturday Evening," "Stumping Dance," "Cow Call." "Peasant Song," and "Wedding Time" from 25 Norwegian Folksongs, Op. 17
  • Scenes from Folk Life, Op. 19
  • Op. 28, Nos. 1 and 3 from Four Album Leaves
  • Op. 29, No. 2 from Improvisations on Two Norwegian Folksongs
  • Peer Gynt Suites 1, Op. 46, and 2, Op. 55 (these were also orchestrated)
  • "Homage March" from Three Orchestral Pieces from Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op. 56
  • Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34. Grieg also scored these for orchestra. (I got to know them as a child when they were used as theme music in the early television series, I Remember Mama. If you are old enough to remember those programs, you'll want to have these beautiful pieces in your collection, too!)
  • Holberg Suite, Op. 40, especially No. 2 ("Sarabande").
  • Waltz-Caprices, Op. 37
  • "Jeg elsker dig" (I Love You) from Six Song Arrangements, Op. 41 (No. 3), and "Solveig's Song" from Six Song Arrangements, Op. 52 (No. 4). The original songs are wonderful, too. I have them with Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano, and Bengt Forsberg, piano on Deutsche Grammophon (D 174269).
  • All of the Norwegian Dances for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 35.

The Most Beautiful Piano Concerto Ever Written

If I had to name the most beautiful piano concerto ever written, and was threatened with immediate execution if I couldn't name just one, I might very well choose Grieg's (he only wrote one, unfortunately). This is available now on a double CD set from Conifer Classics (75605 51750 2) which also includes Grieg's other great orchestral music: the Symphonic Dances, Op. 64; Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34; Lyric Pieces, Op. 43, 54 and 68; the Holberg Suite, Op. 40, and the two Peer Gynt Suites. Ewa Poblocka is the pianist, with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cracow conducted by Tadeusz Wojciechowski. This is a very nice, compact collection.

For those who would like the complete incidental music to Peer Gynt, I recommend Neville Marriner's recording on EMI (CDC 7 47003 2) with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the Ambrosian Singers, and soprano Lucia Popp.

The Symphonic Dances, Op. 64, Norwegian Dances, Op. 35, and Lyric Suite, Op. 54, are available together on a fine Deutsche Grammophon recording (419431 2) with Neeme Jarvi leading the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

Grieg's Neglected Chamber Music

And, finally, I'd like to throw in a good word for Grieg's moving, melodious -- and highly neglected -- chamber music. The String Quartets are well worth having and are available now on a fine CD from BIS (BIS-CD-543) with the Kontra Quartet. The lovely Sonatas for Violin and Piano are out on Deutsche Grammophon (D 101701) with Augustin Dumay, violin; and Maria Joao Pires, piano.

RCA has issued a new CD of Grieg's Cello Sonata in A Minor,, Op. 36, combined with cello music by Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein (09026-68290-2). Steven Isserlis is the cellist; Stephen Hough at the piano. The album is called "Forgotten Romance," and a romantic cello lover like myself wouldn't want to do without it.

Just because a piece is easy to play, that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. Sometimes there is great beauty in simplicity, as Edvard Grieg proves over and over again.

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