The piano repertoire, at least in the way it is propagated, works rather like a nineteenth-century railway stock company. From Schubert Junction to Rachmaninov Central, the same goods are shunted back and forth year in, year out. The intervening stops are as familiar as the first and last: Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Debussy. This repetition impoverishes us for two reasons: in the first place it excludes the wonderful keyboard music that comes before and after the romantic period; and in the second, too many great works from the period itself are overlooked because they can’t be seen from the familiar stops.
How many pianists or composers know Grieg’s Slåtter op. 72? The title is commonly and unhelpfully translated as Norwegian Peasant Dances, a bland label that does everything to disguise the extraordinary dynamism of what comes after it. Grieg was part of the great nationalist movement to preserve folk music from extinction and a friend of collectors and annotators, including Halvorsen, to whom we are ultimately indebted for op. 72. Grieg is fortunate in that the hardanger fiddle tradition is one of Europe’s great primal musics. His approach to folk tradition is less pure (one might say puritan) than Bartok’s and Kodaly’s. Grieg had a city-man’s distaste for many aspects of peasant life, and he clearly considered his piano renderings of folk material as improvements on the originals.
A cursory glance at the score might be unencouraging. So much ¾; so much D major? And the harmony in particular seems to explore a repetitive I-VI-IV-V-I pattern that looks monotonous on paper. In a cycle lasting 35 minutes, how does Grieg overcome these problems? In the first place, he is a wonderfully resourceful piano composer who can employ a variety of textures and ornaments to suggest the skirling fantasy of the originals. Listen for example to the delicate opening of No. 3, 'A Bridal March', or the varied restatement of the tune in no. 8, where the whole piano seems to reverberate in exquisite tintinabullation.
Also, Grieg is a master of rhythm and rhythmic play. Listen to the opening of No. 7, ‘Røtmans-Knut. Halling.’ Then compare your listening with the score, where there is a Stravinskian displacement of the audible effect by a quaver’s distance.
For me the heart of the work is contained in the series of wonderful dances from 10 through 17. No 10, 'Knut Laråsens Halling, I', has a great swaggering melody. The contrasting centre of this dance is rhythmically terrific with its disruptive off-beat octaves (to be played with maximum power, Grieg says). Another moment of tremendous power is the stomping coda to no. 13, ‘Håvard Gibøens draum’, where against a two-bar phrase the left hand remorselessy hammers a series of falling fifths that span almost the entire range of the piano. At the opening of no. 14 Grieg for once tries to catch something of the effect of violin cantillation. The most beautiful piece of the cycle, Kivlemøyane (no. 16), illustrates a short story, reproduced in the Peters score. The central tranquillo section in its exquisite sadness encapsulates the essence of the entire work: a two-bar phrase four times repeated, with a variant of the characteristic chord progression mentioned above underpinning it.
An indispensable resource has now become available on the internet in the form of several performances that interleave the hardanger fiddle tunes with Grieg’s music. And comparing the last passage discussed in the previous paragraph with the hardanger version well illustrates what has been gained and lost. The original has a plaintive, fugitive sadness that the piano cannot completely reproduce. Grieg in his introduction says that the hardanger music ‘bears the stamp of an imagination as daring in its flight as it is peculiar.’ No dispute about that, but some might balk at his other claim ‘to raise these works of the people to an artistic level.’ But there we are. Even masterpieces come to us at a price. And within the limits of his time and place, how wonderfully Grieg has wrought.
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