From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Grieg Piano Concerto, performed by Leif Ove Andsnes, Leonard Slatkin conducting

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Last night I saw the Grieg Piano Concerto performed by Marc-André Hamelin with the Seattle Symphony. I thought I was done with big, gushing romantic pieces like the Grieg concerto, but it was outstanding. Hamelin was amazing. Not that I know a lot about what makes one virtuoso better than another … they all just play so damn fast!

Here is Hamelin himself playing Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Debussy’s Feux d’artifice and Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet No. 123. This last piece is quite good, and if you’re wondering how Liszt wrote a Petrarch sonnet for the piano (I was), here is an article by Andrew Fowler that explains what Liszt set out to do.

Also on the program last night was a world premiere by the composer Sebastian Currier. Divisions is an orchestral piece I rather liked, particularly a weird sequence near the beginning in which a chord played by the entire (or most of the) string section was bent to waver a few times before the orchestra continues the same discordant dialogue as before. To give you a sense of Currier’s style, here also is a violin concerto called Time Machines that is pretty great. Performed by Anne Sophie Mutter, who is always worth listening to.

And here is the composer being interviewed about that last piece, with some interesting observations about “objective time” and “psychological time” and the way music is the optimal medium for exploring this (with comparisons to film and television). Here is another, more general interview, beginning with a selection from his String Quartet, New Atlantis and including comments about a piece based on a poem by Wallace Stevens.


  1. “I thought I was done with big, gushing romantic pieces like the Grieg concerto, but it was outstanding…”

    I thought that was the point of Romantic music – never to be “done” – anticipating perhaps the 12-scale. How big a leap between Wagnerian excess and Schoenbergian perversion?

    That said, I am a sucker for Grieg myself – perhaps it comes from living with a Scandinavian Princess (Swedish, of course, NOT Norwegian, I hasten to add)…

    Thus, in heavy rotation on my disc player:

    • Quin Finnegan says

      I must have heard that Grieg at some point, as it sounds so familiar. More to the point, it sounds great … thanks for sharing.

      Regarding Romantic music … yeah, that might be the point, but after a while I just felt exhausted after listening for even a few minutes. The Schuman 2nd Symphony was also on the program, and thirty minutes dragged into days for me. It’s a lot of sturm und drang to sit through, and it’s hard to muster the care for how it all ends up. As my Dad described Mahler (sorry Angelico!): like having to listen to a neurotic friend blather on for an hour or two. I listened to a lot of Mahler in my twenties and felt a sickness in my soul, to paraphrase Binx.

      Regarding Wagner … I forced myself to watch enough Wagner to eke out an appreciation for him, but it’s very hard for me to get past the glorified paganism. I watched Die Meistersinger a year or so again, and realized again what a great opera it is … just a masterpiece. But the libretto just seems silly. I’ll try Parsifal again next. But yeah, excessive. And now it just leaves me cold. Seattle Opera is doing The Flying Dutchman, and I think I’ll give it a pass.

      As for Schonberg … I first learned about him reading Kundera’s disparagement in Book of Laughter and Forgetting. So I went and listened to Transfigured Night and couldn’t figure out what was _so_ wrong with the piece. Later, when I listened to more modern music, it just became one more medium for expression. I get how it all sounds the same. But after all, one Vivaldi piece sounds much like another until you just sink yourself into the music. So I’ll have to disagree about Schoenberg being perverted. I’ve read that he was hard on other contemporary composers, but then he really did lead musical history in a new direction. I think I understand how the equalization of tone values could be seen as a betrayal of the long history of do-re-mi, but I think we’ve seen how it well the traditional scale has persisted in spite of that betrayal. And composers since Schoenberg have used the 12 tone scale to great effect, in my opinion … I’m thinking mainly of Lutoslawski, in whose pieces I really do sense a freedom from all the work required to follow Mahler, Wagner, etc.

      Anyway, thanks for this other Grieg piece. And for letting be blather on for a while.

      Here’s some Lutoslawski that also features the clarinet and a small orchestra.

      And Shoenberg’s Variationen für Orchester:

      Nothing perverted about it!

      • I think the Vivaldi point is well taken, to a point, but doesn’t quite get at the wrongness of Schoenberg and his lot. One must take a step back and consider the 12-tone as having no referent outside itself; in other words, the lack of resolution (which Vivaldi has in spades) and even the lack of natural (mathematical and therefore aesthetic) structure is, I would hold, the source of the perversion.

        At first I wanted to compare atonal music to the lot of Paolo and Francesca (“The infernal storm, eternal in its rage, sweeps and drives the spirits with its blast.”) but I think the more appropriate analogy would be to a sort of humorless abuse of the rubber glove that takes place in Ignatius Reilly’s bedroom. (I have no quote from COD that would quite show the dour and even destructive nature of atonality.)

        But if we assume that all music, that most immediate of all arts, is built on proportions, and these proportions are inherent – or at least inherently knowable – to our souls (thus, mathematics, the study of quantities, the middle science, requires nothing more than, as Meno shows Socrates, what the soul already possesses) – then what is to be said about a music that proposes to abolish such proportion, to flatten, level, annihilate such proportions? What then happens to the soul that listens to such propositions?

        By nature noble, if flawed, the soul hungers for those “kingly notes” which stand out in Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, – and, yes, even the late Romantics, histrionics notwithstanding. Is it accidental that the product of Schoenberg came out of the same Weimar milieu that gave us Bauhaus, Gropius, Grosz and Hesse?

        “A chaotic age demands a chaotic art,” said Henry Adams.

        A corollary to that notion could be that a nihilistic age requires a nihilistic art. We got that in spades with Schoenberg et al.

        Sorry, I don’t see what many see in Schoenberg, but I think his is the work of the abyss and nothing more…

        Sorry for my rant too.


        • “What then happens to the soul that listens to such propositions?”

          I should have said here “What happens to the soul that listens to the total absence of such proportions?”

        • Quin Finnegan says

          Hmm … lots to chew on here. I just spent way too much time on the Mind & Brain post above, so I’m going to have to shelve the laptop for a while, but just a few thoughts …

          I’m not sure that music created with dodecaphony in mind, or its even more modern descendents, necessarily lacks resolution. I am most definitely not a musicologist, but I realize resolution has a specific meaning within the subject of tonal music theory, and yes, broadly speaking dodecaphony lacks that. But in serial music that I like I have the sense that some kind of resolution is occurring. Dissonance for the sake of dissonance doesn’t seem to be the point in the Bartok quartets. Or Strauss’ Elektra. Even Messiaen developed “modes of limited transposition” and incorporated aspects of twelve tone theory. I’m not a huge fan of Messiaen myself, but I don’t think his intent was destructive (but that’s not why I’m not a huge fan—I probably just need to spend more time with his music!).

          And it definitely doesn’t lack for structure. I have read a couple of books on Lutoslawski, and as I recall, he took a special interest in symmetry and other mathematical structures besides that provided by the traditional tonal system. It should go without saying that I think the tonal system is a great thing, I like tonal music, and I’m not at all suggesting that its day is done. I just think there is more that can be considered “proportionate” and “natural” in music. But I’ll chew on your comments more … especially with the reference to Plato!

  2. “I thought I was done with big, gushing romantic pieces like the Grieg concerto, but it was outstanding…”

    Sola dosis facit venenum.

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