21 September 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Grieg: Suites and the piano concerto

Karajan’s approach to Edvard Grieg was an “economical” one and took place almost completely in the studio.

In two concerts in December 1940, he conducted the piano concerto with the 20-year-old Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. That was all. The concerto was also part of the only studio recording Karajan and Krystian Zimerman made in 1982 (the other piece was the Schumann concerto).

An earlier recording Karajan made with Walter Gieseking, one of the most important German pianists of the 20th century. (Gieseking’s biography is full of strange details. He was the son of a butterfly expert and became one himself, he never went to school nor did he have private tuition, but he invented a special technique for piano playing based on the relaxation of muscles.) Karajan and Gieseking performed together for the first time in 1935, when the 27-year-old Karajan was conductor in Aachen. Gieseking sent a postcard from Aachen to his wife:

“We had a rehearsal this morning. The new conductor, Mr. von Karajan, is spirited. He conducts the whole programme by heart, including the concerto, and he seems to be able to do so.”

They teamed up again for concerts during the war. Recordings were made with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London – between 1951 and 1953 they recorded seven piano concertos, including the Grieg.

It must have been similarly busy in the Sofiensäle Vienna on 22nd September 1961. Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic recorded Brahms’ “Tragic Ouverture”, Holst’s “Planets”, Adam’s “Giselle”, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” – and Grieg’s two “Peer Gynt Suites”. The most popular works in Grieg’s oeuvre were recorded two more times with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1971 and in 1982. In 1971, Karajan also recorded three pieces from the incidental music to “Sigurd Jorsalfar” and in 1981 the charming “Holberg Suite”, played “stylish and urbane (Osborne)” by the strings of the Berlin Philharmonic.

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan conducting Grieg. Listen to them here.

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