Those listeners who collected Einar Steen-Nøkleberg’s recordings of the
complete Grieg piano music will remember a series of short sketches for
Grieg’s unfinished Piano Concerto No. 2. The composer did not get very far:
the sketches only amount to three or four minutes of material, including
what sounds like the theme of the finale and a bit of cadenza, or perhaps
the ending of a dramatic first movement. Steen-Nøkleberg presents them as
fragments, letting them fall off into long silences.
I always wondered if I, or a composer with real training, could build a
good Grieg-style concerto out of these fragments. Now Helge Evju has given
it his best shot, creating a 22-minute piece in five movements. Evju doesn’t
really attempt to mimic Grieg’s language or style, and he doesn’t try to use
the traditional allegro-adagio-rondo format, either. (In an engaging booklet
essay, he calls the concerto a “piece of whimsy.”) The theme I thought
clearly belonged in a finale gets used, by Evju, in his scherzo. The Evju
concerto’s cadenza uses many of Grieg’s sketches verbatim. He also creates
several “big tunes” of his own, borrowing from other parts of Grieg’s life
It’s important, as you listen, to keep in mind Evju’s phrase, “a piece of
whimsy.” This is not a dramatic, or hugely virtuosic, or totally
ear-catching concerto. It’s pleasant enough to sustain multiple listens, and
written in a fun romantic style, but it’s not exactly a second Grieg
concerto. Nor is it meant to be.
As a pairing, we get the fragmentary sketches by Grieg, plus a sizeable
bonus: the original Grieg piano concerto we all know and love. Having said
that, you may not yet know and love this performing edition, revised by
Percy Grainger. Judging from the booklet essay, Grainger worked through the
whole concerto carefully with Grieg himself, notating places where Grieg’s
own playing deviated from the published score. There are also places where
Grieg chose to edit his original.
Unfortunately, the good intentions are the best part of this performance.
Nobody will need this recording of the original Grieg concerto: it’s too
“safe,” too easygoing by far. There’s a peculiarity, in that the tempos are
frequently faster than usual, but within each movement are episodes where
that drive and speed are lost, and the dramatic line with them. And the
orchestral playing, especially, lacks the ferocity of great northern
orchestras. (Think of how aggressively Bjarte Engeset has his brass play on
the Naxos disc.) If you can call live recordings distinctive for their
risk-taking, thrills, or extra emotional charge, then this is distinctive
for being a very studio-bound recording, with none of those things.
Carl Petersson is a good pianist, and an adventurous one, but he doesn’t
seem to shoot for the stars with his Grieg concerto. And I don’t like how he
plays the fragments Grieg left for his second concerto: Petersson strings
them all together, without pausing, attempting to stitch them together into
a coherent single work. They just aren’t, and the jumps between sketches are
dizzying and weird. Einar Steen-Nøkleberg was smart to pause between
fragments, and also did a better job differentiating the rhythms and
I liked listening to Helge Evju’s concerto. It’s enjoyable. Having said
that, there’s really no other reason to acquire the CD, and I doubt that a
slight 22-minute piece of whimsy is sufficient for you to make a purchase.
This disc had a lot of promise, which leaves me even more disappointed.