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Three Men and a Warhorse

There are pieces so familiar, so overplayed, it's hard to remember how they even got that way-- Beethoven's Fifth, Barber's "Adagio." They're classics. Warhorses of the classical repertoire you might say. But what makes a classic a classic? For one, musicians have to love to play it. And audiences have to love to hear it. But there's more to it than that. A great musician can make the old sound newly minted.

Loving Grieg

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has had a long-term love affair with a familiar warhorse by Edvard Grieg—his Piano Concerto in A minor.

Years ago, when Andsnes first played the piece with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen he was just a teenager with a rock' n' roll hairdo. Salonen initially thought, "Oh well, another Grieg Piano Concerto we'll get through it somehow." But at the first rehearsal Salonen says something special happened. "After just five seconds the whole orchestra was completely electrified," Salonen recalls. "And at the end of the run-through the whole orchestra stands up and gives him a standing ovation."

A Country Concerto

Part of making Grieg's warhorse sound fresh is tapping into the national flavor of the music. The fjords, the fairy tales, the folk tunes. They all found a place in Grieg's music. He was Norway's greatest composer, and he proved his patriotism by infusing his Concerto with spirit of the Norwegian countryside.

The last movement of his Piano Concerto skips along in folk dance rhythms (audio). And in the slow movement, Grieg shows his love for Norway's rural landscape another way. He has the pianist imitate a cow-bell (audio).

Grieg was just 25 years old when he wrote the concerto that would make him famous. It was the summer of 1868, and the music came to him during an idyllic vacation in the Danish countryside with his young bride and baby daughter. The piece was a success at its first performance, in Copenhagen, the next year.

No one could guess just what a phenomenon it would become, but Franz Liszt seemed to sense its future. Grieg showed him the score, and Liszt shouted out with excitement as he played though the piece. He told Grieg "Keep on, I tell you. You have the real stuff in you. Don't let them frighten you."

Copyright 2022 American Public Media. To see more, visit American Public Media.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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