As a symphonic work, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor (1868) relies on a chain of regular and repeated phrases with rich, singable melodies rather than motivic development, and an original harmonic idiom somewhat deriving from Chopin and Schumann but that also launched Debussy 20 years later. Its moments of high drama come from volume and ponderousness rather than intensity; its contrasting lyricism is wrought in song; but the blend is always admirable, especially when the performance is as smooth and expressive as this one, with Leif Ove Andsnes in a starring role. Several great pianists have made Grieg’s concerto a signature piece; one remembers Artur Rubinstein (in a famous recording from the 1930s) and the eccentric but brilliant Australian-American, Percy Grainger, who prepared an outstanding edition of the score. But Andsnes’s Symphony Hall performance on Friday afternoon equaled any I had heard before. The opening outburst established his authority; he really socked the bottom A (lowest note on the keyboard) with his right hand. His cool and precise but dramatic execution of the overwrought first-movement cadenza stunned us. The lyrical second section of the third movement , by contrast, came across as a warm cantabile, from the hills and meadows rather than the mountain peaks and fjords. Andris Nelsons coordinated expertly at every moment in this concerto, in which flexibility of tempo is an essential ingredient of overall expression.
Everyone knows the story of how Liszt’s sight-reading of the manuscript score totally dazzled the 25-year-old Grieg. And it was interesting to read that Grieg revised the orchestration at least three times. (Charles Warren Fox, renowned musicologist from the Eastman School, once assured me that the standard orchestration of this concerto was actually by Victor Herbert, but this surely is a base canard — no offense to Herbert, who certainly was an expert orchestrator of his own music.) The piano writing is a different matter; much of it is heavier and more decorated than it needs to be for good piano sound. But the same criticism can be leveled even more at at warhorses such as Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, and I have written elsewhere about Brahms’s weakness in this regard. Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, Chopin’s, and Saint-Saëns’s provide for the best purely pianistic sound. However good a work Grieg’s concerto undeniably is, it is played too often for its own good. If for every 20 performances of the Grieg we could hear MacDowell’s D Minor Concerto just once, we would all be the richer. MacDowell was a friend of Grieg’s, too.
Andsnes followed his big ovation with a short encore, “Gangar” (Norwegian country dance) from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, op. 54, no. 2.
I have written effusively about Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in these pages, HERE and HERE. Yesterday’s performance was a considerably uneven affair. It took a long time before Nelsons established a consistent tempo in the first movement, which has to be both deliberate (bedächtig) and relaxed (Nicht eilen!) as well as just comfortable (recht gemächlich). But the etwas zurückhaltend in the third bar slowed down the tempo to less than a crawl; the etwas fließender at m. 66 was rushed to the point of complete distortion; and there were several other moments like this where the sense of forward motion was totally lost. Amid this were dynamic gestures that seemed quite wrong, like the triumphant horn solo at m. 109, marked ff but that came off as a coarse, even rowdy fff. It’s easy to forget that the dynamics in this 18th-century style orchestration are also gemächlich and must be shaped with complete precision, and that’s the job of the conductor. If Nelsons hadn’t used so many grand, sweeping right-hand gestures the orchestra might not have reacted so forcefully. After all, there are no trombones at all, and the first appearance of even one trumpet is at m. 120. Still, Mahler’s chamber-music sense of orchestration is so miraculous that many events came across well — the unearthly sound of four flutes in unison at mm. 126-141; the unison horns at m. 209; the crazy cello-bass counterpoint at m. 227.
The second movement, with a dance of death (“Freund Hein” fiddling in the painter’s ear in Böcklin’s self-portrait) in easygoing waltz tempo, had more consistency, but there were still problems of dynamics and balance. Tamara Smirnova’s solo violin had the right sense of distortion, but I’m not sure why it was so hard to hear. But there are miracles in this movement as well, especially the low strings in F major in a sudden, exquisite shift to D major at m. 254.
Things improved in the beautiful Ruhevoll third movement, with its long, pianissimo buildup of G major melody in divided un-muted strings, followed by a contrasting section in E minor with exposed winds and sometimes violent dynamics. All of this held together very well despite Mahler’s often abrupt changes of tempo, when the composer suddenly reverts to the style of the two movements that preceded. The prominent orchestral soli include the forlorn oboe-English horn-horn trio at mm. 179-186, a golden moment in this outing. The E major catastrophe near the end of the movement forms an absolute-pitch connection with the very end of the symphony. The last movement (which Mahler had actually composed several years earlier, originally intending it to be part of the Third Symphony) derives its opening G major melody from a motive extensively developed in the first movement, to introduce the text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, radiantly by Genia Kühmeier, a Salzburg native, in her first appearances with the Boston Symphony. The last words, “Alles für Freuden erwacht” (everything awakens for joy), part of a child’s vision of heaven, die away with cellos, bass clarinet, and finally sustained low E in the contrabasses, with four notes at the very bottom of the harp — clearly audible even though morendo. Beethoven and Schubert may have provided the models, but never like this. (“No music on earth can compare with ours”).
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.