André Watts Plays Grieg

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Symphonic Sketches

COMPOSER: Born November 13, 1921, Iisalmi, Finland; died October 20, 1996, Järvenpää
WORK COMPOSED: 1968; commissioned by the Helsinki Festival for its inaugural year
WORLD PREMIERE: Paavo Berglund led the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on May 16, 1968, at the Helsinki Festival.
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings

Of the 20th-century Finnish composers who succeeded Jean Sibelius, Joonas Kokkonen’s music is among the most widely performed, both in and outside of Finland. Kokkonen is best known for his 1975 opera, The Last Temptations, one of the most produced operas in the modern repertory, and for his orchestral works: four symphonies (1958–71); Music for String Orchestra (1957); Sinfonia da camera (1962), and the Symphonic Sketches (1968).

All Finnish composers must come to terms with Sibelius, whose influence can be likened to Beethoven’s with regard to the impact he had on the 20th-Century symphony. Many of Kokkonen’s contemporaries and successors have shunned the writing of symphonies altogether, rather than compete directly with Sibelius’ legacy. Kokkonen, however, was drawn to the symphony’s essential structure, and chose to continue writing in a genre many of his contemporaries considered moribund.

“The originality of Kokkonen’s musical language is undeniable, and it is difficult to see direct predecessors in it,” writes Tero- Pekka Henell in the liner notes to the BIS recording of Symphonic Sketches. The same could be said of Sibelius, whose conception of the symphony seemed to emerge sui generis. In the preface to the score of Kokkonen’s First Symphony, the composer wrote, “If one is to define what is essentially symphonic, it is the construction of the whole from a very limited set of motives which are present throughout the work and subject to a constant process of growth, transformation, and re-combination.” Kokkonen’s motives use musical building blocks based in 12-tone serialism.

The Symphonic Sketches are aptly titled. Kokkonen refused to give them the official designation of “symphony” because there are only three movements – “each of which, with luck, could have been developed into a symphony” – not the standard four. Kokkonen also felt that the brevity of each movement (particularly the Pezzo giocoso, which lasts less than two and a half minutes) did not allow enough time for fully realized musical development. Instead, these brief musical segments – sketches – hint at ideas for a larger work, whose motivic relationships, according to Kokkonen, emerged “entirely from my subconscious.”


Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16

COMPOSER: Born June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway; died Sept. 4, 1907, Bergen
WORK COMPOSED: Grieg wrote his piano concerto in 1868 in Søllerød, Denmark. He revised it a number of times, in 1872, 1882, 1890, 1895, and 1907.
WORLD PREMIERE: Holger Simon Paulli led the orchestra of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen with pianist Edmund Neupert on April 3, 1869.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: October 15, 2015; Lang Lang, piano; Paul Ghun Kim, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo piano, 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

Edvard Grieg had beginner’s luck with his A Minor Piano Concerto. Written when the composer was 25, it is one of the most performed piano concertos in the repertoire, and, along with the Peer Gynt suites, Grieg’s most popular work. Grieg’s concerto is often compared with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, and the similarities between them are not coincidental. Both concertos share the same key and open with a grand orchestral chord, followed immediately by virtuosic flourishes up and down the keyboard. Grieg, a fine pianist, was an admirer of Schumann’s music, and was familiar with Schumann’s concerto, having heard Clara Schumann play it in Leipzig. Grieg always remembered this performance as a major highlight of his Leipzig student days.

Appreciation for Schumann’s music notwithstanding, Grieg’s Piano Concerto is his own. In describing his style of composition, Grieg wrote, “Composers with the stature of a Bach or Beethoven have erected grand churches and temples. I have always wished to build villages: places where people can feel happy and comfortable . . . the music of my own country has been my model.” To that end, Grieg deliberately tapped into the flavors and colors of Norwegian folk songs, although, like Antonín Dvořák, Grieg preferred creating his own folk-inspired melodies, rather than using actual songs.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote, “In Grieg’s music, there prevails that fascinating melancholy which seems to reflect in itself all the beauty of Norwegian scenery, now grandiose and sublime in its vast expanse, now gray and dull, but always full of charm . . . and quickly finds its way into our hearts to evoke a warm and sympathetic response . . . What warmth and passion in his melodic phrases, what teeming vitality in his harmony, what originality and beauty in the turn of his piquant and ingenious modulations and rhythms, and in all the rest what interest, novelty, and independence! If we add to this that rarest of qualities, a perfect simplicity, far removed from affectation and pretense . . . it is not surprising that everyone should delight in Grieg.”

Grieg was unable to attend the premiere in Copenhagen, due to prior obligations with the Oslo orchestra, but he was gratified when pianist Edmund Neupert reported several eminent music critics had “applauded with all their might.” Three days later, Neupert also told Grieg that Anton Rubenstein, the famed Russian composer, virtuoso pianist, and founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, had attended the premiere and said he was “astounded to have heard a composition of such genius.”

The soloist tosses off brilliant flashes of color, like a sonic aurora borealis, in the Allegro moderato. A solo flute introduces a graceful melody that later returns in a different key, ushering in the majestic finale.


Valse triste from Kuolema, Op. 44

COMPOSER: Born December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland; died September 20, 1957, Järvenpää
WORK COMPOSED: 1903, rev. 1905
WORLD PREMIERE: Sibelius led a small orchestra backstage at the theatrical premiere of Kuolema, the play for which he composed Valse triste, at the Finnish National Theater on December 2, 1903, in Helsinki.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: February 6, 2006; Eri Klas, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, clarinet, 2 horns, timpani, and strings

Fame and fortune do not always go hand-in-hand. Jean Sibelius learned this harsh lesson with Valse triste, a bit of incidental music he wrote in 1903 to accompany a play written by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. Two years later, Sibelius arranged Valse triste as a separate work, and it became an instant audience favorite. Valse triste also served as Sibelius’ introduction to audiences in the United States, where both he and it achieved great popularity. Sibelius, who thought little of it musically, had no idea how lucrative Valse triste would become, and sold the rights to his publisher for a ridiculously small sum. In response to audience demands, the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel subsequently published Valse triste in a number of arrangements, from solo flute to brass band, and it became one of the best-known melodies of pre-World War I Europe. For the rest of his life, Sibelius lamented his decision to sell the rights to Valse triste. As an added insult, he was often plagued by financial troubles, a sharp reminder of his ill-considered decision.

Valse triste also worked against Sibelius artistically. For some years after it became a standard orchestral work, little of Sibelius’ other music was included in concert programs. Because of the ubiquity of Valse triste, several of Sibelius’ contemporaries, including Gustav Mahler, dismissed Sibelius’ music as insignificant.

In Järnefelt’s play, Kuolema (Death), Valse triste accompanies a dream sequence in which the main character, Paavali, falls asleep by his mother’s deathbed. Paavali dreams that Death appears at his mother’s bedside; she, thinking Death her late husband, accepts his invitation to dance, and waltzes away with him in a ghoulish embrace. Paavali awakens suddenly, and finds his mother dead.


Symphony No. 5, Op. 50

COMPOSER: Born June 9, 1865, Sortelung, near Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark; died October 3, 1931, Copenhagen
WORK COMPOSED: 1921–22. Nielsen finished the symphony on January 15, 1922, nine days before its premiere. He dedicated it to his friends Vera and Carl Johan Michaelsen.
WORLD PREMIERE: Nielsen conducted the premiere at the Musikforeningen in Copenhagen on January 24, 1922.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: October 5, 2004; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, celeste, and strings

Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s music continues to gain new fans more than 80 years after his death. Although Nielsen’s music was widely known in Europe during his lifetime, it was rarely heard abroad until after World War II; since then, Nielsen’s music has achieved a well-deserved presence in concert halls around the world. Nielsen composed in a variety of genres, but it is his six symphonies that have made the greatest impact on audiences.

Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5, completed nine years before his death, is widely regarded as his finest. This work compresses the usual four-movement symphonic structure into two large movements, each with several sub-divisions. This symphony, unlike some of Nielsen’s others, bears no title like “The Inextinguishable” or “The Four Temperaments,” but its powerful impact suggests the composer’s preoccupation with World War I, which had ended just three years before Nielsen began writing Op. 50.

In the Tempo giusto—Adagio, the orchestra sits on a pedal point D, while the strings obsessively repeat a single interval, like an aural tic. A snare drum executes a series of drum rolls that grow louder over fifty-seven measures before subsiding. When the snare drum returns, the drummer, per Nielsen’s instructions in the score, improvises over the orchestra. The wild and discordant Tempo giusto – especially the menacing snare drum, which almost drowns out the rest of the orchestra – conjures a rising sense of peril. The Adagio soothes, but cannot wipe out the memory of the preceding chaos. The opening theme returns, along with the snare drum’s ominous rolls, and eventually the music fades out, leaving a residue of fear behind.

The Allegro—Presto—Andante poco tranquillo morphs from agitation to uncertainty to a growing optimism. In the final moments, melodic fragments of the opening Allegro return, before the symphony concludes with a triumphant, life-affirming finale.

In 1922, Nielsen told an interviewer he did not consciously set out to write about World War I, “but one thing is certain: not one of us is the same as we were before the war.” Nielsen thought of the symphony as an exploration of contrasts and oppositional forces, and told one of his students that Opus 50 was about “the division of dark and light, the battle between evil and good.”

© 2017 Elizabeth Schwartz


Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.



Kokkonen: Symphonic Sketches
Osmo Vänskä – Lahti Symphony Orchestra 
BIS 468

Grieg: Piano Concerto
Stephen Kovacevich, piano
Sir Colin Davis – BBC Symphony Orchestra
2-Philips 438380

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Mariss Jansons – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI/Warner Classics 94399

Sibelius: Valse triste
Sir John Barbirolli – Halle Orchestra
5-EMI/Warner Classics 9847062

Herbert von Karajan – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
EMI/Warner Classics 76846

Nielsen: Symphony No. 5
Herbert Blomstedt – San Francisco Symphony
2-Decca 460988 OR

Paavo Berglund – Royal Danish Orchestra
3-RCA Victor Red Seal 88875052182

Michael Schonwandt – Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Naxos 8570739