Completions of Grieg are not unique – his friend Julius Röntgen produced an admirable (and too little known) performing version of the Second String Quartet, in which the finale is largely Röntgen’s own work – but this one is certainly rather special.
In 1892, at the height of his powers, Grieg composed around 250 bars of a sonata first movement of a Piano Quintet in B flat, but then laid the work aside, apparently because of the urgency to make revisions in the Peer Gynt music; why he never resumed it is a mystery. The material – which has been published in the Grieg Complete Edition – is intrinsically of high quality in itself, and is also interesting for the fact that it incorporates ideas that he had been sketching in the 1880s for a proposed Second Piano Concerto. In 2007, Michael Finnissy began experimenting with ways to make a speculative completion of Grieg’s movement, and after two solutions which he found unsatisfactory, the third and final version – which is what Metier has recorded here – was premiered at last year’s Bergen International Festival, by the same performers. (I notice the recording, though, dates from nearly a year earlier, in 2012.) Finnissy has suggested that one reason Grieg may have abandoned the movement is that the long-limbed, predominantly ruminative material seems to possess almost ‘Brucknerian’ characteristics and was starting to suggest a movement of unwieldy length, and he has thus chosen to present that material in the context of a very large single movement, following Grieg’s sonata exposition(which is repeated) with a lighter scherzo-section in Norwegian folk-dance (Halling) style and a ‘slow movement’ in Grieg’s lyric manner (he has mentioned the Op.3 Poetic Tone Pictures as a model, which seems on the face of it too early to align with a work of 1892), finally bringing back the authentic Grieg material with appropriate changes to produce a recapitulation finale.
It need hardly be said, therefore, that the result is no Elgar/ Payne Third Symphony. Grieg, who remained at heart a Leipzig trained classicist to the end of his days, must have envisioned a work in three or four separate movements, rather than the kind of large portmanteau single movement which Finnissy adopts, which would shortly exercise the talents and the imaginations of considerably younger composers. (The structural example of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony lurks rather obviously in the background here, and in fact Finnissy has referred to his realization as a ‘Kammersymphonie’- though this is not so inappropriate: Schoenberg, some may be surprised to hear, strongly admired Grieg.) But as a framework for presentation of the excellent original material, when accompanied by Finnissy’s sincere attempts, in his own contributions, to reproduce Grieg’s manner as faithfully as possible, this may indeed have been the most creative way to proceed. The question is whether it delivers an effective and convincing self-consistent musical experience.
On that level, Finnissy has achieved something of a triumph. With its full exposition repeat, Grieg’s own material occupies over 10 minutes of the 27-minute movement, and Finnissy makes sure it is subtly recalled and developed throughout. The ‘Halling’ episode seems slightly functional, in establishing a new and livelier rhythmic profile rather than drawing attention to itself in any striking melodic sense, but the ‘slow movement’, by introducing for the first time long and romantically florid piano solos in leisured antiphony against the strings, creates a thoroughly effective contrast of technique and mood. Grieg’s expressive chromatic harmony, which is actually very hard to reproduce, is sensitively realized here, and pianist Roderick Chadwick is allowed to display his skills as a lyric player. If the exact moment of recapitulation is hard to pinpoint, being skillfully dovetailed into the end of the slow section, the return to Grieg’s material is masterfully achieved in terms of its further development and recasting between piano and strings, leading at last to a decisive and satisfying coda. Overall, it’s self-evidently not what Grieg would have written, but it’s an effective way of putting some splendid Grieg into circulation at last.
The Grieg-Finnissy dialogue is not over, however, with the last bar of the Piano Quintet realization. We also have as coupling a (somewhat longer) work entitled Grieg- Quintettsatz , a parallel or shadow composition that proclaims itself as a work of Finnissy rather than of Grieg. Perhaps the comparison that springs most easily to mind is Alfred Schnittke’s polystylistic scherzo for piano quartet that takes as its starting point the unfinished sketches of the second movement that Mahler had intended to write for his A minor Piano Quartet, though in fact Finnissy’s attitude to his great predecessor seems more reverent than Schnittke’s. Considering what kind of ultra-modern free-form stramash he might have produced, in contrast to his highly disciplined period-style approach to the Quintet realization, here Finnissy has set out rather to suggest Grieg’s debt to Norwegian folk music and Wagnerian rhetoric, expanding both the sonata-exposition and the Halling music, and subsequently his influence in turn on Grainger, Debussy and Ravel, extending even as far as John Cage. He likens the result to Picasso’s elaborations of Velasquez or David Hockney’s versions of Claude Lorraine.
So we have a new, fragrant ‘pastoral’ opening and deconstruction of Grieg’s exposition in the direction of more supercharged rhetoric , turning into almost a dream-fantasy of Norwegian folk song- here all much more airy and floating. The dance-music becomes more insistent. Then about halfway through the ‘modernist’ Finnissy takes over for awhile – the ‘Picasso effect’, in a kind of Cubist Halling – leading to an episode of Schoenberg-like chromatic intensity and then a sort of distorted Graingeresque romp. Increasing fragmentation and nostalgic breakdown of the material ends in an abrupt, almost savagely gestural coda. How much all this adds up to a piece – in the way that the Quintet completion certainly does create one – is perhaps debatable, perhaps a matter of taste, but I was touched and charmed by the first few minutes of Grieg-Quintettsatz, and impressed by the seriousness of some of the late portions.
The Kreutzer Quartet players have long been champions of Finnissy’s music. In combination with Chadwick they are as eloquent as one could wish in the Piano Quintet completion, and skillfully negotiate the sudden stylistic shifts and non-sequiturs of Grieg-Quintettsatz. In a few spots I found the string sound a bit harsh, but overall this is a well-balanced recording from West Sussex’s Steyning Centre: a notable addition to Finnissy’s discography – and Edward Grieg’s.