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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

MSO's Portrait of Grieg as a Young Pianist

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Edvard Grieg's only piano concerto, composed when he was 24, remains one of the most beloved 19th-century piano compositions. Its almost dangerous popularity during World War II derived not only from its folk-like Norwegian characteristics and unabashed melodic bloom, but also from its enhanced prestige as a national symbol of patriotic resistance to Nazism.

Some musicologists would later underestimate the work as too limited and regional. Yet when Grieg composed it in 1868, the youthful composer had no patriotic agenda in mind. His marriage to Nina Hagerup and the birth of their baby daughter fueled his creative energies. The sublime, unaffected innocence of the Grieg concerto, with its lovely melodies, only adds to its universal appeal. Whatever Norwegian folk motifs it contains have been sublimated into a compelling tapestry that never fails to inspire the listener.

Although greatly influenced by the equally popular but more reticent Schumann concerto (Grieg first heard it performed by Clara Schumann), Grieg's music, far from being imitative, exhibits an ebullient intensity and a striking originality all its own. The opening crescendo exuberantly scales the entire range of the piano—an opening used in such classic films as The Seventh Veil and Intermezzo (Ingrid Bergman played much of the entire first movement) and more recently on TV in “Beauty and the Beast” and “Twin Peaks,” to name a few.

Although the melancholic simplicity of the contemplative second movement strongly suggests the quiet majesty of the fiords at dusk, some critics minimize the movement's arresting conclusion, which hints at the drama yet to come. Some believe the masterstroke occurs at the very end, where an innocent secondary theme is recalled in a crashing, spine-tingling finale. Nonetheless one is left with a poignant hearkening to a world of optimism long gone by.

Pianist Simon Trpceski and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart perform Grieg's Piano Concerto Sept. 30-Oct. 1 at Uihlein Hall.
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