GRIEG: Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 7; Peer Gynt – Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (trans. for piano); Ballade in G Minor, Op. 24; 3 Scenes of Country Life, Op. 19 – Sheng Cai, piano – ATMA Classique ACD2 2838 64:45 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The young Edvard Grieg benefited from encouragement from Norwegian violinist Ole Bull (1810-1880), who directed Grieg’s interest in regional folklore. Grieg had begun composing in 1858, mostly keyboard miniatures; but in 1865, at age 22, Grieg embarked on his one sonata for piano, dedicating the ambitious piece to composer Niels Gade (1817-1890). In four movements, the Sonata extends the classical tradition of Beethoven and Schubert but set in Grieg’s personal syntax, which no less exploits the anagrammatic maneuver in Bach and Schumann, utilizes three notes in canon – E, B, and G – as taken from the composer’s own name. The opening Allegro moderato rushes out in declamatory style with a turbulent, descending motto which serves as Grieg’s own sturm und drang gesture. The robust discourse between the hands heavily favors the left, whose ornaments and figurations testify to the composer’s own gifts at the keyboard. The original, passionate motifs return to conclude a well-wrought, expressive movement, well crafted by Cai, whose apprenticeship in Romantic repertory comes from pedagogues Anton Kuerti, Russell Sherman, and Gary Graffman.
The second movement of the Grieg Sonata, in C Major, Andante molto, which, while asking for cantabile to dominate the affect, no less exhibits a restless, martial chromaticism, drastic harmonic shifts, and passionate swells in the melodic line that express a deep personal anguish. Chopin’s nocturne structure provides the model for Grieg’s introspective moment. The third movement, Alla Minuetto ma poco più lento, opens as a slow minuet, marked piano, cantabile e semplice, in meditative mood, though the music progresses to overt declamation in four beats, imitative of the Beethoven 5th motif. A new, more placid affect arises, set over the same rhythmic kernel. The original, martial dance returns and moves to its resolute, final statement. The Finale: Molto allegro opens rather symphonically, 6/8, almost Brahmsian in its six measures. Then, a spirited romp in E Minor in chromatic harmony ensues, with bravura, right-hand runs. After a pregnant fermata, a lighter, more fleet, dotted-rhythm episode develops in the relative major. Grieg matches the two impulses, vigorous and singing, against each, the buoyant frolic always at his disposal. The writing bears a certain quality reminiscent of Mendelssohn, but tinged with a hearty, militant ethos that carries us to a bright, E Major coda.
It was Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) who requested Grieg compose incidental music for his picaresque melodrama Peer Gynt (1876). After having set the extended Opus 23, Grieg arranged two suites for orchestral use, beginning with the Act IV “Morning Mood” in E Major, set in the Sahara. The music proceeds to the powerful lament for Peer’s mother in B Minor, “Ase’s Death,” from Act III. The sultry Anitra of North Africa seduces and robs Peer in Act III, and her modal dance parodies a Chopin mazurka. A Norwegian folk dance, the halling, provides the vigorous impulse for the Act II “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” In his transcription of this mad crescendo, Cai relies on piano arrangements made by Grieg and Russian virtuoso Grigori Ginzberg (1904-1961). Cai reveals his penchant for lyrical melody and sonorous bell tones in “Morning Mood.” “Ase’s Death” plays in the manner of a repetitive, harmonized plainchant, increasingly expressive. The last and most famous excerpt, the escape from the Mountain King (or Troll) bears a Lisztian, demonic impetus worthy of several awe-struck auditions.
Following the death of his parent, Grieg in 1875/76 composed his most ambitious (and personal) keyboard work, his Ballade in Variation Form, which he never performed in public. Grieg claimed to have composed the piece “with my life’s blood in days of sorrow and despair.” Grieg based his complex – 343 measures – and often polyphonic work on an ancient folk theme from 16th-century Germany but collected by Matthias Lindeman (1812-1887), who knew the theme’s having been set as a Lutheran chorale. Grieg structures the piece as a thematic statement, 14 variations, and a coda. Leopold Godowsky recorded the piece (1929) as would Artur Rubinstein (1955), each making a strong case for the work’s epic status.
From its opening phrase, Andante espressivo, 3/4, in a Schumann style, Grieg builds a huge structure, immediate passing into an impromptu in harmonized triplets, and the first of many virtuosic variants, this in 9/8, marked Allegro agitato. Variation 4 has the quality of a folk dance, in descending, chromatic 16ths. Più lento, Variation 5 builds on slow arpeggios and creates a haunted, desolate atmosphere. No. 6, Allegro scherzando, plays in the form of a toccata. Cai has a special feeling for No. 8, Lento, a funereal piece with bell tones. Variation 9 borders on impressionism, Un poco andante, but its feeling contains agitation. The variations then, according to annotator Brisson, “jostle together to culminate in a frantic cavalry charge worthy of Liszt.” This is true particularly in Variation 13, Allegro furioso, and then No. 14, a mighty Prestissimo. The music pounds aggressively in ascending octaves; then, Grieg inserts an E-flat octave in low register, marked Lunga, with a fermata. The first 8 bars of the original tune recur, back in G Minor, and the piece closes with a quiet chord in the home key. Cai has realized Grieg’s potent labyrinth with a combination of digital resolve and poetic finesse.
The 3 Scenes from Folk Life date from 1881, and Grieg entitled them Humoresques, after Schumann. These pictorial, folk tunes indulge in parallel fifths and melodies whose accented motifs enjoy ornaments indicative of the Hardanger region. “In the Mountains” projects a (staccato) rustic, percussive energy we associate with the trolls of Peer Gynt. Its middle section has a delicacy of the music-box. “Bridal Procession” begins with the impression of the folk fiddle’s setting a drone over which a stately march enters, a happy, rustic couple’s making their ceremonial tour through the village. Cai’s right hand performs some delicate tracery, almost an intimation of the bride’s festive veil. The music trips along in a dream fashion, with village bells nigh. The last of the pictures, “Carnival Scene,” serves as a culmination of the triptych, recalling in its syncopated figures quotes from the two preceding episodes. Passing dissonances and spunky chordal runs lead to a more sedate middle section, reflective and illumined by a sense of bucolic majesty. Once more, Grieg has taken Robert Schumann as his model but infused his own, national style upon these affectionate, Northern post-cards.