Grieg Piano Concerto: What are the Best Recordings?

From its unforgettable opening timpani solo to its extravagant ending that showcases the full glory of the symphony orchestra, to all of the dazzling solo piano writing in between, the Grieg piano concerto is an indispensable part of the classical music repertoire.

Edvard Grieg in Leipzig, 1859

Edvard Grieg in Leipzig, 1859

And yet, I don’t have a favorite performance of it.

I want to change that. Today I’m logging into YouTube, sorting by view count, and checking out some of the most popular performances to see which one of these pianists tickling the ivories tickles my fancy.

Grieg's Piano Concerto autograph manuscript

Grieg’s Piano Concerto autograph manuscript

Arthur Rubinstein

Pros: This performance is beautifully shot, and Rubinstein (being Rubinstein) always manages a lovely, pearly tone. That tone is especially magical in the meditative slow movement (his entrance there comes at 16:44).

Cons: In the first movement especially, the tempos are so – incredibly – plodding. Soloist and orchestra sound as if they’re playing under a weighted blanket. I’m not a fan.

On the other hand, it feels cruel to criticize the performance of an 88-year-old pianist, and the tempos feel less like a technical limitation than a deliberate interpretive choice. Still, they do impact my enjoyment.

My personal rating: 5/10

Eric Morecambe

Pros: Here’s a Grieg performance given by pianist and conductor André Previn and comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Previn’s straight face at Morecambe’s immortal line “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order” is priceless (a legendary sequence that starts around 10:45).

Cons: Technically speaking, the concerto doesn’t actually get played. Still, you have to admit that this is one of the most memorable Grieg concerto performances ever.

My personal rating: a hearty chortle/10

Khatia Buniatishvili

Pros: This performance is full of depth and subtlety. There are multiple passages, especially around the first movement cadenza, where it feels as if Buniatishvili is composing the music on-the-spot. (Check out 9:00 on.) Magical.

Cons: I’m not always convinced that the orchestra matches Buniatishvili’s musical gestures or general intensity, and there are times in brisk passages when she seems to be on the edge of losing control.

My personal rating: 7.5/10

Julia Fischer

Pros: Never mind pros and cons. Here’s the single most important thing about this performance: Julia Fischer isn’t a professional pianist! She’s a violin soloist! And yet here she is, casually tossing off the Grieg piano concerto! And not only that, it’s on the same program as Saint-Saens’s third violin concerto! Who does that, and then agrees to let cameras and microphones in? It almost doesn’t even matter how she plays the Grieg, honestly. It’s an incredible achievement.

Cons: Pianists and violinists alike might be tempted to burn their instruments after watching this.

My personal rating: OMG/10

Hannes Minnaar

Pros: This performance was recorded in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, famous for its lush acoustics. Between that and the musicians’ lyrical approach, this performance is such a treat to listen to. It goes down like a smooth liquor.

Cons: Unfortunately that lyricism means that some of the punchier or more percussive details of the concerto are skimmed over. There are also times when certain details in the orchestral part are emphasized, and I’m not sure why. (For example, starting around 4:34, what’s the purpose of the relatively uninteresting pulsing in the strings battling for supremacy with the melody in other sections?)

My personal rating: 7.5/10

Georges Cziffra

Pros: This is a live recording, so there’s a sense that anything could happen, and that creates an energy that’s impossible to replicate in a recording studio. The runs and fast passages here are just jaw-dropping. Try the skittering passagework at 1:45.

Cons: The recording quality is really, really dreadful. This performance sounds as if it took place inside a tin can. But if you can get past that… The playing is immensely enjoyable.

My personal rating: 8/10

Sviatoslav Richter

Pros: It’s Sviatoslav Richter, so of course it’s going to be great. The silvery authority that Richter wields in this performance is electric, especially in moments like the opening of the third movement (around 18:55). And the orchestra matches his spirit at every turn. It’s a wild, passionate ride from start to finish.

Cons: There are none worth mentioning. I guess if I was forced to name a con, it’s that this recording reminds me that Richter is dead and I’ll never get to see him perform live, and that makes me sad.

So that’s it! I’ve found my new favorite recording of the Grieg piano concerto: a 1974 performance of Sviatoslav Richter on piano, with Lovro Von Matacic conducting the Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra.

My personal rating: 10/10

What other great performances of the Grieg piano concerto have I missed? (There are so many!) Should I give one of these performances another chance? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments so everyone can check your favorites out.

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