Grieg Grainger Piano Rolls: an Equivocation

Nina Greig & Percy Grainger

At the 1988 Last Night of the Proms, Andrew Davies conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Percy Grainger as soloist. Grainger’s part was played from a couple of piano rolls he made in 1921. (The hugely popular performance is captured on YouTube [click here].) Grieg was overwhelmed when he heard Grainger’s performance during a visit by the Australian pianist to Norway, naming it the finest he had ever heard of his concerto. Grainger was quirky in all things, and made every piece of music his own: both qualities Grieg applauded.

Grainger liked nothing better than a challenge. When the challenge was insufficient he would invent something to heighten the performance. In this case he was in the habit of leaping from the platform, sprinting to the back of the hall and leaping back onto the stage just in time for the first cadenza. His athletic prowess was not confined to the keyboard. He was slender and handsome with the good looks of a matinée idol.

There are plenty of features of this performance which were not written by Grieg – accelerandi and rallentandi, anticipated as well as late entries, exaggerated tempi  – especially the faster ones, odd notes missed and not a few added. But as you can hear, all these embellishments are profoundly musical.

Grieg was modest by nature. He didn’t have much respect for his own music. I had indirect experience of this. I was playing one of the salon pieces in a piano lesson with Henry Geehl – himself a pianistic legend and then in his eighties. He stopped me and asked me to repeat the last eight bars exactly as I had played them. I did, unaware I had made a mistake. How interesting, mused Mr Geehl, I remember talking to the old boy about this piece (he meant Grieg), I rather think he would have approved of that mistake you made. I had played a German sixth where Grieg had written a French sixth – only one note difference, but in another harmonic world. Debussy would have knocked me off the piano stool.

You can see from this episode that Grieg’s modesty came with geniality. And Grainger’s playing is bursting with just that. No wonder Grieg approved.

Both composers had a fondness for folk music – spruced up to electrifying in Grainger’s case, stripped to its most direct simplicity for Grieg.

Listen to Grainger’s Shepherd’s Hey or his own elaborate showpiece of Country Gardens. Both on YouTube. Then listen to ‘Solveig’s Song’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt incidental music.

There are milliard ways in which the two composers are poles apart. What unites them is geniality. Did we ever know that geniality spoke so many languages?

It was a stroke of imagination that made the BBC offer the piano rolls at the 1988 Last Night of the Proms, spoiled only a little by the condescending voice of the snooty announcer (the late Richard Baker), in fashion at that time of BBC presentations. Maybe better if Andrew Davies had pre-recorded any brief introduction felt necessary.

With the political gloom in the UK, and predictions even gloomier for the year to come, this genial music invites us to dare say it: Happy New Year!

Jack Buckley

10 thoughts on “Grieg Grainger Piano Rolls: an Equivocation”

  1. Jack! what a great review, made me go straight to YouTube to see the Prom. I loved it and of course it all came flooding back: can you remember your brilliant assembly where you introduced us to the Grieg Piano Concerto: I can remember the aide memoires: ‘this bouncy rhythm makes the tune stand out!’….. ‘please give the tune to me’ …… then later on ‘get your haircut!!’ … did you make up the tag lines or were you taught them yourself?? Another thing I loved about the Percy Grainger rolls: was seeing the notes visually on the card! matching to the music. Thank you for a great review. xx Jane your devoted and admiring student as always.

  2. I remember some of those catch phrases, maybe not the same ones – ‘don’t be angry’ – Symphonic Variations by César Franck,- ‘as I was going to Leningrad, I met a maiden fair’ – Tchaikovsky Variations on (something). Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme spoke for itself – perhaps ‘get your hair cut’ was one of the variations from that piece ….

  3. ‘Get your hair cut’ and ‘don’t be angry’ were memory joggers in snippets of the Franck symphonic variations, as was ‘as I was going to Leningrad’ which belonged to the theme of Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations from Suite No.3 in G. All of these were apt jokes of Joseph Cooper who invented them when working for the great John Hosier’s broadcasts for schools. ‘Please leave the tune to me’ mentioned by Jane, belongs to the finale of the Franck Sonata which Cooper then broadcast with Vera Kantrovitch, whom you will remember then came to Wennington and played it. She had been my excellent chamber music tutor at Trinity. Then Andrew will doubtless recall her guidance with some four hands pieces you played with Jeremy Neville. Shocking to think that all of you must now be retirement age! And that was the year you beat Fanny Waterman’s pupils at the Harrogate Festival. Fanny celebrates her hundredth birthday this year!

  4. Some musicians use words to help themselves remember musical themes. Not all though. I find myself using musical themes or patterns to help me remember more abstract things, especially tasks or procedures. Re the Franck Violin Sonata, the third movement begins with a cannon – the violin and piano chasing their tails – then the contrasting theme ‘I’m on my own now, I’m on my own……’ It doesn’t stay on its own for long though. I do happen to be at retirement age but I’m still working for now. I think it suits me better to be working regardless of age.

    • Well done, Andrew! I have found that I’m busier and more energetic since I passed the age of retirement two decades ago. Susan Sontag’s assertion that the most vital, single piece of information we possess is that THERE ARE WAYS OF KNOWING WHICH WE DON’T YET KNOW ABOUT. Passing this on to a twenty-something student two nights ago, I thought he was going to explode with the challenge!

  5. Dear Mr Buckley, I very much appreciate your review, which I found by accident on Google. You have clearly inspired both loyalty and affection in your former students. Since I was the musician (NOT “technician” as it says on YouTube!) who guided Percy at the Proms in 1988, I could provide any amount of background information about that particular performance, but I’ve already done most of that in comments underneath the YouTube video. On this occasion I simply wanted to speak up for Richard Baker. Over a number of years Richard was extraordinarily kind and helpful to us in connection with the player piano, and I think his presentational style is simply how things were in the 1980s. I know for a fact that he was not in any way belittling the performance, about which he was genuinely enthusiastic. He had come to me during the afternoon to check on the detailed introductions he was planning to make (which don’t appear on the YouTube video), and three years before that he had presented the inaugural concert of our Pianola Institute at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which also included the Grieg, plus ‘Carnival of Animals’ with two foot-pedalled Pianolas and orchestra.

    I can remember meeting Richard Baker for the first time in 1972, when he came up to Nottingham to present a summer concert for the English Sinfonia, of which I was the young Concert Manager. I was deputed to look after him the night before the concert, and my memory is that we managed to consume the best part of a bottle of whisky in the bar underneath the Albany Hotel, after which I drove the ten miles home, as one did in those days! I think it was his first concert engagement, and he took the rare opportunity of being away from home to relax with the aid of a decent malt.

    When our QEH concert in December 1985 failed to fill the hall, as a result of a snowstorm and widespread train cancellations, Richard discreetly and spontaneously returned half of his fee, since he felt that his name should have generated a larger audience for us. We were all very touched by his kindness, and we continued to send him copies of our Pianola Journal until he died. I’d like to find a musician or presenter nowadays with such gentle manners!

    All the best to you with your reviews,

    Rex Lawson

    • Such wonderful memories are much appreciated by Seen and Heard and thank you for taking the trouble to write in.

  6. I was there, in the front row of the choir on the extreme left (viewed from the auditorium) – I doubt if I’m recognisable on the video! This is one of the Proms I remember with particular pleasure, especially the performance skill of Rex Lawson which was impeccable. And of course I got to experience it three times, because rehearsals!


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