Piano Street Magazine

Grieg: The Maverick – Peter Donohoe in Conversation

April 12th, 2023 in Articles by | 1 comment

Distinguished British pianist Peter Donohoe has embarked on another comprehensive recording project on Chandos label spotlighting Edvard Grieg’s complete Lyric Pieces, and the first volume is out since June 10 last year. Piano Street had a chance to talk to Donohoe about Grieg and his project.

Grieg’s contribution to the piano repertoire is enjoyed by so many but yet seldom talked about or discussed. The “Lyric Piece” was an early invention starting as a collection of eight in 1867 (Little Lyric Pieces – Lyriske småstykker). These were easy to play pieces rooted in Norwegian folk music. Eventually the production of these small forms added up to 66 pieces in ten volumes. As Grieg allowed his creative expression through the smaller-scale forms, he is therefore often described as a miniaturist. However, Grieg’s style is innovative, both in terms of form, rhythm and harmony. Also, his grouping of works – within a single larger opus – confirms his affinity for a cyclical approach. Moreover, the larger chamber and orchestral works give proof that he was able to fully explore extensive contexts and explore new musical directions.

Peter Donohoe is since his top prize at the VII International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982 often labeled as a Russian specialist.

A glimpse at Mr. Donohoe’s extensive discography makes us realize that this only reveals a small part of the pianist’s musical deeds and interests. Donohoe’s relation to Grieg is very personal and started with a deep and sincere fascination for he A minor Piano Concerto, a piece he – as a boy – made his very own version of and performed at a local piano equipped coffee shop he used to visit with his father. As a teenager Donohoe expanded his knowledge of the music of Grieg to include many solo piano pieces as well as the better-known orchestral works. Donohoe was fascinated by the Norwegian folk element in the music, Grieg’s natural gift for memorable melodic lines, the occasional diversions into unique and extraordinarily forward-looking harmonies including a present degree of emotional naïveté. According to Donohoe, a unique, unidentifiable kernel in the composer’s output defies analysis, as is true of the work of all the great composers.

Patrick Jovell: Peter, you have done numerous recordings and you have covered so many different repertoire areas, including UK music extensively, as well. You are the Tchaikovsky Competition top prize winner of 1982 and by many considered a specialist in Russian repertoire. So, what made you explore so many different areas of the piano repertoire?
Peter Donohoe: Well, three fold answer properly. The first one is that I’ve always really loved music in general and played lots of different instruments when I was younger. And so, as a teenager I developed particularly as someone who really did not want to be pigeonholed with anything. I was very keen to be a general musician and to know music from the inside, whether it involved a piano or not. In fact, largely not, because I was a kind of rebel because people expected me to become what I am now so I tried not to put myself into that. I went against the grain, just for the sake of it, which is rather silly in a way (laughs). However, it had its very big upside, which is that my knowledge of music as a young man included and encompassed lots of things that had nothing to do with the piano at all. It included rock music, and music like opera and chamber music, string quintets, piano quintets of course, but all kinds of things that I loved to be involved with. My girlfriend at the time was a singer and we did lots of lieder recitals. So the idea that because of one event – like the Tchaikovsky competition – labels me as a Russian specialist always went against the grade. Of course it was kind of inevitable with the media in particular. I suppose more particularly in media from other countries, because that was the first time they’d heard of me. I understand why it happens, but I don’t want to spend my life playing Russian music, as simple as that. Russian music is an interesting case because it’s so politicized. By and large, Russian piano music is a small repertoire. It’s just that some of it is amongst the most popular music ever written; Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos 2 + 3, the Paganini Variations, Tchaikovsky’s first, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition, but not much else. It’s almost like the whole popularity of it is based on a very small number of works. And I didn’t want to spend my life playing those works.

PJ: It seems like Grieg is such an underestimated composer, because everybody plays him, but nobody really talks about him?
PD: It’s the same reason as with the Russians. Its popularity is based on a very small number of pieces. The lyric pieces are regarded as easy. So I think virtuoso pianists tend to think; oh, I don’t want to be associated with beginners’ music. I can remember the waltz in A minor, for example, from the first book of the Lyric Pieces. I can remember learning to play it when I was about nine or something, when I started being aware of music generally outside the small number of pieces I knew as a small child which included the concerto by the way, and it always does, doesn’t it?

In fact, I think it’s probably true that massive numbers of people who end up playing the piano professionally knew the Grieg concerto before they knew more or less anything else. In my generation in particular, it was so popular and unique. It is a great piece. It’s original and totally unaffected by any other composer, as I can see. Grieg was a Maverick in a way when he wrote that.
But the reason why a simple piece is difficult is because of its simplicity. The Grieg Concerto isn’t simple, it’s a very complex, technically difficult and stylistically difficult piece. And how anybody can say it’s easy and say, oh, it’s only the Grieg, it’s beyond me. The Lyric Pieces were kind of – I was taught a few of them from the first book when I was younger – which is usually the case. And then later on, the famous Wedding day in Troldhaugen.
But that was later in my life, and basically Grieg was always there in the background. And then recently he came up again in my mind, I thought, what wonderful music and what a wonderful composer he really was. And as you say, and recognized, really for being, well, let’s not say great in the sense that Beethoven and Brahms are great, but a Maverick, an incredibly original and just very immediately memorable and appealing. At the same time as not following any trends really at all.
I suspect he probably felt – as a student in Germany – that he wasn’t part of the scene, a bit of an outsider. I mentioned in the booklet that he went to Norway to live for the summer months only. But of course he was hugely successful in popularity and was not surrounded by people who taught him very much about popularity. He learned it by himself.

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PJ: I would like to ask you about what we know of Grieg as a pianist, because there are Welte Mignon recordings available and I must say that it’s rather impressive hearing him play The Butterfly for example. He displays a very natural style of playing the piano. How is it that we don’t spend any time learning about these ideals or idioms?
PD: I can’t really imagine because he was a revolutionary character in his way. It’s just that the revolutionary aspect of it was too appealing to the general public, for it to be taken seriously by musicologists. And the fact that his concerto was amongst the most popular pieces ever written is almost a black mark. It’s like, he’s a populist composer, which isn’t really at all. I mean Schumann is highly respected and maybe the closest to influencing Grieg. I mean, it’s in the same key, but it doesn’t have that much similarity to the Grieg and it’s got a flourish at the opening, but then, so is Rach’s first, in a way, so is the Emperor concerto.
So there’s nothing like a copycat at all. Why don’t we? Well, Germany took over didn’t it? German music during the 19th century in particular, but to some degree, the one before. German music dominated the world and I think maybe most of the musicologists were German. They just tended to ignore the rest of the world.

PJ: So, we always compare ourselves to the great schools in Germany?
PD: Yes, particularly in terms of form. And form in German music is almost all directly related to the fact that they use motives rather than melodies. And so they can build these gigantic structures from relatively small bricks, which is precisely like a German cathedral. Whereas most of the rest of the world relied on melody. I suppose I should say the rest of Europe really, to be completely correct.

When you think about the music of Schubert, he’s a wonderful exception because he was Austrian of course. And he did write long melodies, and he tried to write symphonic works based around them. And because he used the same techniques as Beethoven, he ended up with very long pieces. It’s kind of silly, but it’s true. It’s such incredibly great music that I don’t want that to sound like some kind of facetious remark about him, but it is true that that’s one of the main reasons it is so long, almost all major works are very long. He was an exception. I think the Russian repertoire for example, is based so much around long, very memorable melodies and very extreme moods as well. Very obvious moods.

PJ: Could you say it’s a sort of operatic? I mean, that it takes time; the time it takes to sing the phrase and that’s it.
PD: If you take Rachmaninoff melodies and Tchaikovsky’s melodies for example, and to a very large degree Grieg’s, who didn’t build symphony preparatory in the same way that they did, but he did write one symphony and a great violin sonata in fact more than one and the piano concerto. So he was aware of large scale forms, but I suspect he wasn’t very comfortable with them. Exactly because of what you just said, he thought of a melody and wrote it.
Maybe a contrasting melody and then returning to the original one. What most of these lyric pieces are like. It’s like, they’re sort of not but something on trio and then the recent ABA form. Actually, to be more correct. I think probably most of the time he tends to go for ABAA because he has almost always got a repeat. First expect you to do before the trio, which is really, it’s almost obtuse, but it’s a very interesting way of looking at it, is that that form appealed to him so much to do that.

PJ: Now, tell me about your project because you started with the first album, will you do all the 66 Lyric Pieces?
PD: Yes. Well, there is only enough material for one more CD. One more, because actually after this, I suspect we’ll do some more Grieg, there’s less well known. For example, the Ballade. The Ballade is one of the most substantial piano words he wrote. It is a very good piece and the Four Pieces Opus 1 are also very interesting and very rarely played.

PJ: If we look at the time when Grieg was active and we are talking about UK composers, they have a tendency to watch a lot towards France. The UK had extremely good composers at that time. You are also trained in France. Is this something that you were aware of when you were a student, there’s a sort of affinity while Grieg is doing other things more related to folkloristic content?
PD: It’s a very interesting question. My memory is that when I was a student, I was unaware of the British composers who wrote for the piano or at least I was unaware of their piano music because what I was really into was symphonic music at that time. And to some degree opera, as I mentioned before, chamber music and the whole host particularly in late 19th century, British composers kind of went by me until much later, but I started to explore it when I realized how gorgeous British music can be. Well, in fact as a pianist, I should say, that’s when I realized how gorgeous British piano music can be. Because what happened before was that my awareness of composers, like Elgar and Britain, was more 20th century than earlier I suppose. My awareness was based on their symphonic music, which is so fantastic.

PJ: That’s very interesting. Why do we hear Debussy in Grieg and Grieg in Debussy? Sometimes it just flashes up and then it disappears.
PD: Well, it could be partly because Grieg was, as you mentioned, Liadov and Scriabin before. All three of them were very obviously influenced by Debussy. I think even Tchaikovsky may well have influenced Debussy. There was a relationship, which, I mean, as I’m a non-musicologist, but there is definitely a feeling of, of some kind of bridge between Russia and France. And there always has been in all kinds of cultural ways, even though they had a war in 1812, but I mean, essentially they have such a lot and the French language was used a lot in Russia. Grieg was, I think, rather largely influenced by the Russian contemporary scene. I think you could feel that. I’ve already said, I think that he was a Maverick and it seems to be on his own, but of course there were some influences from other places. It’s not as simplistic as that, but there are definitely echoes of music from Russia in his music. And if that music from Russia was influenced by Debussy, that’s the reason. One extension of that; Debussy was so obviously, and openly anti-German and yet was influenced directly by Wagner. And so there was a kind of protest. It’s a little bit like a teenage rebel against his parents. And so they’re all interlinked to some degree. Grieg’s obvious Germanic flavor in some of his music is. They’re all in a nest together, aren’t they? Particularly after the first WW1. I think that was inevitable.

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  • Corinne says:

    Wonderful. I love Grieg, his arietta is one of my all-time favourites and I play it almost every day, I need to learn more but there’s so much music, so little time!

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