Grieg performs Grieg

“Strong and sudden accents of all kinds and vivid contrasts of light and shade were outstanding features of his self-interpretations, while the note of passion that he sounded was of a restless and feverish rather than of a violent nature. Extreme delicacy and exquisiteness of detail were present in his piano playing and although the frailty of his physique, in his later years at least, withheld him from great displays of rugged force at the keyboard, he prized, and demanded, these resources in others, when occasion required.” – Percy Grainger

More than a century after his death, Grieg’s music still retains its ability to enthrall and engage. Its eternal freshness undimmed with the years constantly finds it new audiences ready to be entranced by its special form of magic. But there always seems to be whispers in the long winding corridors of serious musical minds – surely here is small-scale music, written smaller? Simple block structures, lack of development, the seams held together with sticking plaster – where are the transitions? The bigger pieces little more than several smaller pieces rather obviously bolted together. It is apparently clear on the page for all to see and even the most heartfelt and intelligent performer for the most part reinforces those geometric shapes in performance, as they are – well – Grieg.

And there we probably would have ended the story, had not these recordings existed. What they demonstrate is something remarkable and they turn all this on its head. Grieg in his own performances contradicts almost everything his own written page seems to reinforce. He forms long, flexible lines, creating wonderfully dynamic frameworks totally unrestricted by the solid written shapes so clearly visible on the page, which seems so short-breathed by comparison. It is rather like an incomplete list of ingredients on the one hand and a superbly prepared gourmet meal on the other. Take To Spring for example, where all the joins in the theme are reshaped and reconnected, not only sweeping away the rather solid simple appearance of the theme on the page but also creating new contours released from the confines of his own score. It is supremely wonderful, now given its own free flight, and never ceases to amaze.

But if the impression we get as a listener to so many of these performances is of something inspired and improvisatory, unfolding the road as it is walked, then we would in fact be wrong in one respect. Even though clearly forged from a living force, Grieg is actually sculpting his phrases on firm but often complex and surprising patterns in a remarkably consistent fashion. It so often gives the impression of something sparked by the moment and crisp with the freshness of the newly made but is in fact the product of a sharp musical mind and no doubt much reflection. And where may we ask is that perfectly balanced symmetry so often associated with this composer? It is, practically speaking, non-existent with not a hint of square rigidity when one looks even a fraction below the surface.

INTERPRETIVE DETAIL

To a modern audience one of the first things to strike home – and it does with a vengeance – is the tempi. He is always surprisingly fast. This nervous energy was one of the important things that struck Percy Grainger so forcibly, and many of his contemporaries also. But in reality this approach to tempo does not distinguish him significantly from many of the other great musicians of his time and the following decades. The extreme forwardness in, for example, the single cylinder recording of Brahms made in 1889 and much of Rachmaninoff’s recorded legacy leave similar impressions when first heard. The really incredible thing, however, is the way in which Grieg and so many other great performers of this golden age were able to incorporate such a vast amount of interpretive detail within often seemingly hair-raising basic speeds. But the overall shape and line always predominates, supported by the extremely rich detailing and shear musical content in the performance. But as always, look a little deeper and often – below a fast moving superstructure – is to be found a much broader stroke with slower moving pulsing that points the way forward, creating a more panoramic view, symphonic in breadth.

During the twentieth century, however, a change seems to have gradually taken place in the way we play classical music. Although very gradual it is also fundamental. We have as musicians collectively become more logical, reduced the level of disturbance in our music making, brought into balance tendencies that were before in conflict. If today we are perhaps now more in harmony with Newton’s Law, then the greatest performers of the first half century of recorded history (very roughly up until the 1940′s say) might have modified it a little to great effect – ‘every action has an unequal and opposite reaction’.

Grieg joins so many of the greatest performers of this earlier time in so many aspects of his playing style. His pulse and tempo are constantly affected by minute changes of direction. These create strong undercurrents under the surface and reinforce opposing tendencies increasing the tension and internal conflict. As we have talked about before there may be little evidence of this on the page but the result is both compelling and organic, and mesmerising in effect. If we zoom in for a moment and look at a transition or a phrase ending we see him inevitably avoiding the obvious accumulation of like-minded elements. He almost never slows down, reduces tension, relaxes the rhythm and gets quieter in both hands at the same time. When he does it is a striking and bold effect.

It is the very opposite of the modern approach to these things. He is also surprisingly consequent in his approach to other musical elements, for example rhythm. In the Alla Menuetto from the Piano Sonata Grieg builds an incredible symphonic structure out of a piece that looks rather repetitive and short breathed on the page. Rhythm plays a very great part in that build. The triplet figure that threads through the whole piece is richly varied, finding very specific forms that often evolve over time, but he reserves the stable balanced form of equal notes for a few occasions (which in this case are not at all striking but points of liquid transition). The modern performer would more likely use the balanced form of the triplet as it looks on the page as his mantra and modify it at specific places for expressive effect. Grieg, the Romantic miniaturist uses it for architectural development – quite a different standpoint to take.

‘IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING’

‘Swing’, or what Grieg always referred to in his letters and diaries as ‘Schwung’, is surely one of the basic elements of performance of all periods. That contact with the human body, that strong physical moulding of musical phrases and shapes seems natural to us humans. It is certainly very powerful, indeed in Grieg’s playing and that of so many of our early musical heroes, from the tantalizing Brahms recording onwards.

Today, what most people think of as swing is only one form, though an important one. It is basically dance based at its root (be it the Ländler or the Waltz in Vienna or Jazz in Brooklyn). It is relatively stable and centres around a regular recurring beat. The other form that Grieg and his contemporaries use to such great effect, and for so much of the time, grows from the same root but has an altogether more dynamic and subversive personality driving the music forward, often with great power. The swing or schwung here develops and evolves bar by bar, often creating really exciting internal conflicts. All this is heard to great effect in the Alla Menuetto, where it is the powerhouse that drives the big shapes of the opening and the gentle leader of the long floated line in the quiet middle section.