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ClassicsOnline Home » GREAT PIANO CONCERTOS (10-CD Box Set)
At the very heart of a concerto is the interplay and contrast of a solo instrument within a larger instrumental ensemble. The natural progression from the Baroque concerto grosso, the concerto as we know it was fully established as a concert staple in the eighteenth century, and many works dating from this period are still a key part of the repertoire today. The opportunity for dazzling virtuosic display from the soloist has resulted in the concerto becoming a vital musical force both on the concert platform and in the audience arena.
The most important composer in the development of the early piano concerto was Mozart, whose masterly compositions for the instrument paved the way for expansion of the form by composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Grieg. In the Romantic era, composers such as Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky lent a distinctly Russian fluency and passion to the idiom, whilst no pianistic survey would be complete without the transcendent concertos of those great piano masters, Chopin and Liszt. The twentieth century transformed the piano concerto yet further with splendid offerings from a delicate Ravel, fiery Prokofiev and jazzy Gershwin to name but a few.
By James Norris
GREAT PIANO CONCERTOS
Mozart • Beethoven • Brahms • Liszt • Grieg • Schumann • Chopin • Tchaikovsky • Rachmaninov • Ravel • Prokofiev • Gershwin
The word concerto has been variously derived, suggesting either competition, ‘striving together’, or cooperation. It is the former derivation that sometimes seems most relevant, in view of the pattern later adopted by the solo concerto, of which the piano concerto is a subspecies. By the later eighteenth century, when the pianoforte was undergoing considerable technical development, the concerto, in English usage, had come to mean an orchestral work with a prominent part for a soloist or soloists. In the later seventeenth century and the first half, at least, of the eighteenth, the principal concerto form had been that of the concerto grosso, in which a small group of players, the so-called concertino is contrasted with the whole body of the orchestra, the ripieno. This form reached a high level of popularity through the work of the Italian composer Corelli, and his imitators, including Handel. Handel himself also wrote solo concertos, many of which have a prominent solo part for the organ, and his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach wrote solo concertos for one or more harpsichords, often derived from earlier works for different solo instruments. In Venice Vivaldi did much to develop the solo concerto, particularly for his own instrument, the violin.
Keyboard concertos underwent further change, notably through the sons of Bach, all distinguished as keyboard-players as well as composers. The solo keyboard concerto reached a height of its own with Mozart, whose 23 piano concertos remain at the heart of concerto repertoire. As so often, these works were written principally for the composer’s own concert purposes, particularly, during the last decade of his life, spent in Vienna, for subscription concerts that provided part of his income, once he had secured release from his earlier employment in the court musical establishment of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The general form of Mozart’s piano concertos is that of a three-movement work, an opening fast movement, followed by a slow movement, and a final, energetic rondo. The pattern of these movements has much in common with the symphony of the period, while retaining elements of an earlier form, exemplified in the many solo concertos of Vivaldi in the first decades of the eighteenth century. This last involved the use of a ritornello, a recurrent section of the music that serves as a framework for a series of contrasting episodes. The general form of the first movement of a Mozart piano concerto opens with an orchestral ritornello, in which the soloist should also play the orchestral bass part. This section presents the main theme and a subsidiary theme, both in the main key of the work. The second section introduces the soloist in contrast or interplay with the orchestra, changing key in its course, and leading to an orchestral passage, recalling thematic material. The third section generally develops further the themes already heard, perhaps introducing new material. The fourth section is a recapitulation, bringing back the first and subsidiary themes and including, before a final orchestral passage, a cadenza, a passage for the piano, usually improvised by the soloist. The general pattern followed in the classical concerto is of an orchestral exposition, the soloist’s exposition, development and recapitulation, but this allows for considerable variety. The second, slow movement takes various forms, and the final rondo has the general form of a series of episodes, framed by the recurrent ritornello, with which the movement will have started.
Like Mozart, Beethoven, who also had other instrumental skills, was principally a pianist, playing instruments in Vienna that had changed considerably over the years and were to continue to do so, increasing in range and in sonority. At first, on his arrival in Vienna in 1792, he had established a reputation for himself as a pianist, winning particular praise for the singing tone he was able to produce from what is, in fact, a percussion instrument. His five piano concertos generally follow the form adopted by Mozart for his piano concertos, with some expansion of the forms and innovations that include in the fourth and fifth piano concertos, the earlier appearance of the soloist, who introduces, however briefly, both first movements. As with the symphony, Beethoven expanded the traditional classical form of the genre.
Robert Schumann had at first intended to embark on a career as a pianist. He abandoned this ambition during a period of study with Fredrich Wieck, whose daughter Clara, one of the most outstanding performers of her time, became Schumann’s wife in 1840. It was for her that Schumann wrote his only solo piano concerto, its first movement started by the soloist, and the outer movements in the tripartite form of exposition, development and recapitulation, familiar from other instrumental works. Between the soloist and the orchestra there is an element of competition that was to assume greater significance and in the slow movement a dialogue with a solo cello.
Johannes Brahms, a native of Hamburg who, like Beethoven, made his home in Vienna created something still more massively imposing in his two piano concertos. He had met Schumann in 1853, shortly before the latter’s mental breakdown and death, and remained a strong support for Clara Schumann and her children. As with his four symphonies, the two piano concertos of Brahms came after lengthy periods of gestation, and, like his symphonies, were soon seen as a continuation and development of the work of Beethoven, as Schumann had prophesied. Brahms himself was a pianist and was able to appear as a soloist in his own demanding works, performing with great mastery if not always with great accuracy. The two piano concertos are massive in conception, symphonic in their working. The solo parts are demanding, but lack the purely technical virtuosity that had become a feature of the romantic concerto.
Regarded by many as the leading pianist of his time, Franz Liszt had established a wide reputation for himself in recitals throughout Europe, securing the kind of adulation that the demon violinist Paganini had inspired in his performances. By 1848 he had abandoned the career of a peripatetic virtuoso and settled in Weimar. Whether he liked it or not, he now found himself pitted against Brahms, 22 years his junior and a champion of musical tradition, while Liszt explored the Music of the Future, an extension of music into new territories. His so-called symphonic poems, translations of extramusical subjects into instrumental form, were an innovation for which the followers of Brahms had no time. Liszt made changes in the form of the piano concerto, aiming to assure the unity of a work by the use of thematic metamorphosis, leading one critic to mock what he described as music that was ‘the life and adventures of a theme’. Liszt’s piano writing, like that of other virtuoso contemporaries, made considerable technical demands on the soloist.
A close contemporary of Liszt, Fryderyk Chopin, son of an émigré French father and a Polish mother, had left his native Poland to settle in Paris. His earlier career seemed to mark him out as a pianist-composer, but in France he found a more congenial place for himself as a composer, a teacher, and a performer in the elegant salons of the French capital. His first ambitions had led him to provide for his own use two piano concertos, both in the current romantic style and both highly characteristic of the composer in their piano-writing. Chopin may have lacked the competitive virtuosity and ostentation of Liszt, but his poetic and harmonically adventurous use of the piano was to have a marked effect of the future of music, qualities evident in his two piano concertos.
What was at one time the best known piano concerto of all was the work of the Russian composer Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. Russian music had taken on a new character in the course of the nineteenth century. A group of nationalist composers, led by Balakirev, had set out on a new path, in opposition to the more technically professional music taught in the conservatories, newly established in Russia by the Rubinstein brothers, both formidable pianists, in St Petersburg and in Moscow. It was in the first of these establishments that Tchaikovsky had his musical training and in the second that he found employment for a number of years. Tchaikovsky, in fact, was among the first composers of significance in Russia to bridge the gap between the inspired amateurism of the nationalists and the ‘German’ professionalism of the conservatories. He completed two piano concertos and one movement of a third, with the Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor the most widely known.
The nineteenth century had seen growing nationalism throughout Europe. In Scandinavia one of the pioneers in music that reflected national elements was Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian, although of earlier paternal Scottish ancestry. His single piano concerto, in which he was able to appear over the years as a soloist, was written in 1868 and makes full use of elements drawn from Norwegian folk-music. Grieg had studied in Leipzig, of which he remained critical, although during his time there he had heard Schumann’s piano concerto, with the composer’s widow as soloist, and he had benefited from the advice in Weimar of Liszt, who read through Grieg’s concerto at sight, a characteristic feat. Grieg’s piano concerto, a work that retains its place in the popular pantheon of romantic concertos, demands a degree of virtuosity and is informed, particularly in its last movement, by rhythms familiar from Norwegian folkdance.
With Sergey Rachmaninov music found a remarkable pianist and a composer who continued something of the Russian romantic tradition. Trained both as a composer and as a pianist at the Moscow Conservatory, he completed his studies in the last decade of the nineteenth century as Tchaikovsky’s life came to a close, embarking then on a career that promised much. He left Russia at the time of the Revolution in 1917 and thereafter depended largely on his skill as a pianist to support himself and his family. He wrote four piano concertos, the second of which has won particular popularity. Tchaikovsky’s first concerto may be recognised at once from the opening piano chords, ranging through the keyboard, added at the suggestion of a former pupil. Rachmaninov’s second concerto also opens with a series of piano chords, but these offer more sombre, deeper sonorities, introducing a work in which the piano and orchestra are in continuing collaboration.
Sergey Prokofiev at first seemed about to follow the example of Rachmaninov and seek a career outside the newly established Soviet Union. He had studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory, distinguishing himself as a pianist and as a composer, while shocking the more conservative of his teachers. While Rachmaninov severed ties with Soviet Russia, where he had, in any case, lost his family property, Prokofiev kept the way open for a possible return, travelling abroad in 1917 with official permission and returning definitively in 1936. This was unfortunate timing, as the year marked the start of official condemnation of trends towards modern idioms of Western European music. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, missing the opportunity that the latter’s death brought in a seeming relaxation of Soviet artistic policy. The third of his five completed piano concertos was first performed in 1921 in America, and remained an important part of Prokofiev’s solo repertoire, heard in Russia in celebration of his final return there.
In France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Debussy had set out to become a pianist, before turning exclusively to composition. His younger contemporary Maurice Ravel was both pianist and composer, wrongly bracketed too often with Debussy and the latter’s alleged Impressionism. His two piano concertos, the second for the left hand, were completed in 1931 and reflect something of Ravel’s wit, precision and gaiety. In both works there are elements derived from jazz, while the composer drew attention to his study of the classical concertos of Mozart, in which he had over the years been a distinguished soloist, and the concertos of Saint-Saëns.
This light-hearted approach to the concerto is exemplified too in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, an American jazz concerto, described as an ‘experiment in modern music’. The work had its influence on Ravel and in the audience at the first performance in 1924 had been Rachmaninov among other distinguished musicians. Gershwin’s musical experience had been as a song writer, and in Rhapsody in Blue he tackled a much larger form, leaving another musician to orchestrate the work, introduced by a memorable clarinet glissando, the suggestion of one of the players in Paul Whiteman’s band, for which the work had been commissioned. In many ways Gershwin seemed to open new possibilities in the work, but these could only find an occasional place in music of the period. It led to the commissioning of a true piano concerto from Gershwin and, in the handling of larger forms, to his opera Porgy and Bess.
Today the concerto continues, in one form or another, its essence the contrast and combination of a solo instrument or group of solo instruments with a larger instrumental ensemble. The opportunities the form offers for virtuoso display make the concerto an important part of orchestral programmes, one that contemporary composers largely continue to explore and which solo performers demand.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K 466
Piano Concerto No 21 in C major, K 467 ‘Elvira Madigan’
The youngest child and only surviving son of Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus was born in Salzburg in 1756. He showed early precocity both as a keyboard player and violinist, and soon turned his hand to composition. His obvious gifts were developed, along with those of his elder sister, under his father’s tutelage, and the family, through the indulgence of their then patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg, was able to travel abroad—specifically between 1763 and 1766, to Paris and to London. A series of other journeys followed, with important operatic commissions in Italy between 1771 and 1773. The following period proved disappointing to both father and son as the young Mozart was irked by the lack of opportunity and lack of appreciation of his gifts in Salzburg. Mozart spent the last ten years of his life in precarious independence in Vienna. Initial success with German and then Italian opera and series of subscription concerts were followed by financial difficulties. In 1791 things seemed to have taken a turn for the better, despite the successor to the Emperor Joseph II , who had died in 1790, lacking interest. In late November, however, Mozart became seriously ill and died in the small hours of 5 December.
The second half of the eighteenth century brought considerable changes in keyboard instruments, as the harpsichord was gradually superseded by the fortepiano or pianoforte, with its hammer action, an instrument capable of dynamic nuances impossible on the older instrument, while the hammer-action clavichord from which the piano developed had too little carrying power for public performance. The instruments Mozart had in Vienna, by the best contemporary makers, had a lighter touch than the modern piano, with action and leather-padded hammers that made greater delicacy of articulation possible, among other differences. They seem well suited to Mozart’s own style of playing, by comparison with which the later virtuosity of Beethoven seemed to some contemporaries rough and harsh.
Mozart entered the Piano Concerto in D minor, K 466, in his new catalogue of compositions on 10 February 1785. It received its first performance at the Mehlgrube in Vienna the following day in a concert at which the composer’s father, the Salzburg Vice-Kapellmeister Leopold Mozart, was present. Leopold Mozart sent his daughter a description of the first of his son’s Lenten subscription concerts, remarking particularly on the fine new concerto that was performed, a work that the copyist was still writing out when he arrived, so that there had been no time to rehearse the final rondo. He was immensely gratified by Wolfgang’s obvious success.
The first of Mozart’s two piano concertos in a minor key, the Piano Concerto in D minor has a dramatic orchestral opening, with tension mounting as the wind instruments gradually join the strings. Like its immediate successor, K467, it is scored for trumpets and drums, as well as flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns, and strings, with divided violas. The soloist enters with a new theme, after an orchestral exposition that has announced the principal material of the movement and later extends the second subject in a work of sombre mood, occasionally lightened by reference to brighter tonalities. The slow movement, under the title Romance, is in the form of a rondo, with trumpets and drums silent, returning in the final rondo.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K 467, was entered in his catalogue of compositions with the date 9 March 1785, a month after his Concerto in D minor. It was first performed by the composer at the fifth of his Lenten Mehlgrube concerts on 11 March, the day after a concert in the Burgtheater for which he had used his new fortepiano with an added pedal-board, an instrument that his father remarks is constantly being taken out of the house for concerts at the Mehlgrube or in the houses of the aristocracy.
The opening bars of the exposition, played by the strings, are answered, in military style, by the wind, and there is a second theme of less significance than a true second subject, which is reserved for the soloist’s exposition. The soloist enters at first with an introduction and brief cadenza, leading to a trill, while the strings again play the first part of the principal theme, answered by the piano, which then proceeds to material of its own. An unexpected foretaste of the great Symphony in G minor from the soloist leads to the happier mood of the true second subject, echoed by the woodwind and followed by darker moments in the central development. The F major slow movement has won recent fame, by its use in the film Elvira Madigan, but is, nevertheless, one of the most beautiful of Mozart’s slow movements, moving in its apparent simplicity and lack of bravura, but complex, in fact, in its harmonic pattern. Trumpets and drums return for the final rondo, its principal theme announced by the orchestra and repeated by the soloist. The movement provides a relaxation of mood, a carefully balanced and lighter conclusion to a concerto of much substance.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Concertos No 23 in A major, K 488
Piano Concerto No 25 in C major, K 503
Mozart completed his Piano Concerto in A major, K 488, on 2 March 1786. It was designed for use in a series of three subscription concerts that Mozart had arranged for part of the winter season at a time when he was busy with the composition of his first Italian opera for Vienna, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Mozart mentions the concerto, among others, in a letter to Sebastian Winter, a former servant in Leopold Mozart’s employ, who had entered the service of Prince von Förstenberg in Donaueschingen as friseur some twenty years earlier, and now sought to acquire compositions by Mozart for his master. He adds, while seeking a permanent stipend from the prince in return for whatever compositions he requires, that if clarinets are not available in Donaueschingen the clarinet parts of the A major Concerto may be played on violin and viola.
The strings open the concerto, echoed by the wind, and all lead forward to the string announcement of a second subject that has a hint, at least, of sadder things. This material is duly expanded by the soloist, but with less freedom than has often been the case in earlier concertos of this kind. The central development starts with a new theme, capped by the soloist and later varied and extended, before the recapitulation, with its cadenza by the composer. The slow movement of the concerto, in F sharp minor, opens with the soloist and the principal theme, one imbued with melancholy. The wind introduces a more cheerful theme, to which the second clarinet adds a characteristic accompaniment, before the soloist takes up the same strain, before the return of the main theme of the movement. The final rondo is prodigal in its invention and energy, largely dispelling the sorrows hinted in the first movement and openly expressed in the second.
The Piano Concerto in C major, K 503, is entered in Mozart’s list of his compositions with the date 4 December 1786 and was performed the following day at one of the four Advent concerts arranged at the Casino belonging to Mozart’s earlier landlord, the publisher Johann Thomas von Trattner, whose wife was one of his pupils. The concerto was played by Mozart in his Leipzig concert in 1789 and by his young pupil Hummel in Dresden in the same year.
The concerto is scored for flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums, with strings, and opens with a grand declamatory statement from the whole orchestra, suiting well the key of C major. The jubilation of the opening is belied by the immediate intrusion of the minor, an element that also adds a darker colour to a new theme, introduced by the strings. The soloist makes an at first hesitant appearance, growing in confidence and elaboration, before the orchestra breaks in with the first subject, now extended by the soloist, who is later to introduce a second solo subject in the key of E flat, a natural move from C minor, but unexpected in a C major concerto. There are to be other surprises and elements of counterpoint that add weight to a musically substantial movement. The F major Andante is again on a large scale, its principal material announced by the orchestra and answered by the soloist in a movement that is broadly in sonata form, with the briefest of central development sections. The opening of the final rondo is deceptively cheerful, soon acquiring a tinge of melancholy with references to the minor key. Here, as in the earlier movements, there is scope for considerable virtuosity from the soloist in music that encompasses a variety of moods before its triumphant ending.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58
Born in Bonn in 1770, the eldest son of a singer in the Kapelle of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s Kapellmeister, Beethoven moved in 1792 to Vienna. There he had some lessons from Haydn and others, quickly establishing himself as a remarkable keyboard player and original composer. By 1815 increasing deafness had made public performance impossible and accentuated existing eccentricities of character, patiently tolerated by a series of rich patrons and his royal pupil the Archduke Rudolph. Beethoven did much to enlarge the possibilities of music and widen the horizons of later generations of composers. To his contemporaries he was sometimes a controversial figure, making heavy demands on listeners by both the length and the complexity of his writing, as he explored new fields of music.
By 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, Beethoven had already shown considerable proficiency as a performer on the newly developing pianoforte. He sought lessons from Haydn, to be followed by instruction from the Court Composer Salieri and from AI brechtsberger. It was not long before Beethoven established himself as a performer of remarkable imagination and skill. At the age of fourteen he had attempted his first piano concerto, a work that now survives only in a piano score. Between the years 1794 and 1809 Beethoven wrote seven concertos, five of them for the piano. Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, was written in 1800, the period of composition of the first symphony and the first set of string quartets. Piano Concerto No 4, written in part while the composer was at work on his opera Fidelio, was completed in 1806, by which time three more symphonies had been composed, as well as the Razumovsky Quartets.
The Piano Concerto in C minor recalls in key and opening theme, the great C minor concerto of Mozart. It was first performed in Vienna by Beethoven, but it was for his pupil Ferdinand Ries that the solo piano part was first committed to paper. The imposing first movement, with its impressively strong first theme and contrasting subject of calm intensity are announced first by the orchestra, before the entry of the soloist. The slow movement has a theme of protracted beauty. The E major theme is introduced first by the soloist, who opens the final rondo with a principal melody of bold outline. The movement is broadly conceived and contains striking moments of contrapuntal invention and a rapid closing section that transforms the two main themes.
First performed in 1808, the Piano Concerto in G major opens, contrary to the general practice of the time, with a brief statement of part of the first subject by the soloist. The orchestral exposition follows, after which the soloist is heard again, in a more elaborate rôle, which is maintained in a movement of imposing conception. The relatively short E minor slow movement, in which Liszt imagined Orpheus taming the Furies by his music, has all that deep serenity that Beethoven knew so well how to conjure. A brief introduction by the strings leads to the entry of the soloist, a pattern that is then repeated. The movement is scored only for piano and strings. The second movement is linked to the third by a brief passage of singular poignancy, allowing the discreet entry of the orchestra in the final rondo, quickly dispelling the previous mood with a principal theme of cunning harmonic originality. There are episodes of a more serious cast to come in a movement in which traditional optimism finally prevails.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major, Op 73 ‘Emperor’
The last of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, popularly but mistakenly known as the Emperor Concerto, at least had imperial connections. In May 1809 Vienna was once again under attack from the forces of Napoleon. Haydn, now some years in retirement in the city, died at the end of the month, while most of the leading families, including the imperial family, had taken refuge elsewhere. In October there came what Beethoven was to describe as a “dead peace”, but the year was altogether an unsettled one. During the French bombardment Beethoven had sheltered in the cellar of his unreliable brother Carl Caspar, covering his head with a pillow against the noise of the cannons, On 12 May, however, the city surrendered, the French occupation bringing with it hardship to householders, from whom a levy was exacted, coupled with a continued shortage of money and food. It was in these circumstances that Beethoven, now 39 and increasingly deaf, worked on his new piano concerto, while spending part of the summer collecting material from various text-books for the instruction of his royal patron Archduke Rudolph. The work was probably completed in the following year and was given its first performance in Leipzig on 28 November 1811, when the soloist was the Dessau pianist and organ virtuoso Friedrich Schneider. The concerto was later to be played in Vienna by Carl Czerny.
The Concerto in E flat major, Op 73, dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, has been described by Alfred Einstein as “the apotheosis of the military concept” in the music of Beethoven, a reference to popular expectations at the time. The martial element in the work suggests comparison with the Eroica Symphony of 1803, a work that Beethoven conducted at a charity concert during the French occupation of Vienna in 1809. The concerto opens with an impressively triumphant piano cadenza, an indication of the scale of what is to come. This is followed by the orchestral announcement of the principal theme, one of the expectedly strong character, to be miraculously extended by the soloist in a movement of imperial proportions. The slow movement, in B major, an unexpected key that has already been suggested indirectly in the first movement, is introduced by the strings, with a theme of characteristic beauty that is only later to re-appear in a version by the soloist. It is the latter who hints at what is to come, before launching into the final rondo, music of characteristic ebullience and necessary contrast, providing a brilliant conclusion of sufficient proportion to sustain what has gone before.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major, K 595
Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B flat major, K 595, was completed on 5 January 1791. Mozart played the concerto at a concert for the clarinet virtuoso Joseph Bähr on 4 March, given in a room belonging to the restaurateur Jahn. The year was a busy one and seemed likely to bring a turn for the better in Mozart’s fortunes. Emanuel Schikaneder, an actor-manager well known for his Shakespearean performances, had devised a magic German opera, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which was staged in the autumn at the suburban Theater an der Wieden, to be described by the critical diarist Count von Zinzendorf as “une farce incroyable”. Whatever its dramatic peculiarities, the music was much enjoyed by the general public. There had been a commission also from Prague for an opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, to celebrate the coronation in that city of the Emperor Leopold II . The work was performed there in early September to the disgust of the Empress, who had little time for such “porchería tedesca”, and of Count von Zinzendorf, who was bored. The same year Mozart began his Requiem, a work that he never finished, and wrote his Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet.
The B flat Piano Concerto is scored for an orchestra without trumpets and drums. After the orchestral exposition the soloist enters with the first subject and goes on to a passage in F minor, before the F major second subject emerges. There is a central development of inventive freedom before the recapitulation, with its composed cadenza. The soloist opens the Larghetto, followed by the orchestra, after which the piano adds an extension of the theme in music essentially in the form of a rondo, characterised by the repetition of the main theme between episodes. The last movement has a hunting theme, similar in character to the rondos that end Mozart’s Horn Concertos and closely resembling his setting of Christian Adolf Overbeck’s Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling: Komm, lieber Mai, und mache die Bäume wieder grün, K 596, (Longing for Spring), written on 14 January. The movement has contrasts of mood and key and a bravura element in the brilliant writing for the solo instrument, in music that is at times introspective and always deeply felt. The concerto is comparable to the greatest that Mozart wrote in times of greater optimism, a fitting conclusion to a remarkable series of works.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833. After a period of hard work, teaching and playing in suburban entertainment establishments, he had his first significant success in 1853 in a tour with the Hungarian violinist Reményi. Friendship with the violinist Joachim led to an unproductive visit to Liszt in Weimar and to a more fruitful meeting with Schumann, now established in Düsseldorf as director of music. It was Schumann who detected in the young musician a successor to Beethoven. Brahms was to continue his relationship with Clara Schumann after her husband’s breakdown and subsequent death in 1856. It was not until 1864 that he settled finally in Vienna, having failed to realise his first ambition for recognition in his native Hamburg. In Vienna he became an established figure, known for his tactlessness and occasional rudeness, but proclaimed by his friends the champion of pure music against the eccentricities of Liszt and Wagner, a rôle which his four great symphonies did much to reinforce. He died of cancer in April, 1897, at the age of 64.
Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 1 was conceived originally as a sonata for two pianos. It then became a symphony, but was completed as the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op 15, in 1859. The original conception in 1854, came at the time of Schumann’s illness and was developed during the difficult final years of the latter’s life, suggesting, particularly in its slow movement a Requiem for Schumann. The concerto had its first private rehearsals, with Brahms as soloist, in Hanover in 1858, with Joachim conducting. They introduced the work to the public in January the following year to a polite reception. This relative success persuaded Brahms to the more ambitious step of a performance in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Julius Rietz, once Mendelssohn’s assistant in Düsseldorf and now established in Leipzig in succession to Niels W. Gade. The reaction of the audience to such a demanding work was hostile, with ironic applause from one or two and hissing from many. A well-known critic found nothing good to say about the concerto and even less to commend in Brahms’s performance as a pianist, at the time his principal means of earning a living. His later supporter Hanslick, indeed, writing three years later, found that Brahms played more like a composer than a virtuoso, praising his honesty, his interpretative abilities, yet aware of inaccuracies however compelling the whole performance. A subsequent performance of the concerto in Hamburg met a better reception. In the following years the work gradually won wider acceptance, finding its way early into the repertoire of Clara Schumann, a strong advocate. The concerto is massive in its symphonic conception, described by one contemporary as a symphony with piano obbligato, and clearly posed problems to its first audiences, lacking any trivial or superficial brilliance in its writing and calling for sustained attention over its very considerable length. As the symphonies Brahms was to write might seem an extension of the work of Beethoven half a century earlier, so the first of his two piano concertos seemed to continue and develop the pattern set by Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. In November 1855 Brahms had appeared as a soloist with orchestra for the first time in a performance of that concerto and included Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and Mozart’s D minor and C minor Concerto, in his concert repertoire at this time. These all had an observable influence on his own writing.
The first movement opens with a feeling of tragic significance, the marked trills adding to its ominous nature, before a gentler element, a foretaste of the second subject, intervenes, followed by a sudden outburst from the orchestra, which returns to its opening mood, hushed only by the entry of the soloist. The pianist succumbs, in turn, to the initial theme with its fierce trills, leading to the second subject, a hymn-like theme announced by the soloist. The material is developed in a section that makes heavy demands on the solo instrument and the recapitulation brings its own surprising shifts of key. The massive first movement is followed by a contrasting slow movement. Over the melody of the Adagio Brahms wrote the words Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord), a reference, it is supposed, to his master, Schumann, although he is also said to have identified the movement with Clara Schumann. The liturgical reference was later crossed out, in an attempt, to conceal, perhaps, such an overt display of feeling. A long-drawn theme is played by the strings, the bassoon joining the bass, with the piano adding its own meditation on the melody. As in the first movement, the horns have a characteristically evocative part to play, however brief, while the piano continues its progress towards a new theme. The mood of the opening returns, extended in a cadenza of great serenity. The last movement, a Rondo, has a marked and energetic opening that may remind one of Beethoven, both in his Concerto in C minor and in other final movements, including, even, in some of the keyboard writing, that of the first piano sonata. The rondo form allows the inclusion of a number of contrasting ideas, an F major episode introduced by the piano and developed by the orchestra and a later episode introduced by the violins, but treated contrapuntally, as is the principal theme, before it has gone too far into a purely lyrical mood. A cadenza, marked quasi fantasia and using a dominant pedal-point, a sustained note to underpin changes of harmony, a feature characteristic of Brahms, leads to a moving conclusion.
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat Major, S 124
Liszt was born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of a steward in the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes. Encouragement from members of the nobility, allowed him in 1822 to move to Vienna, for lessons with the famous piano teacher Czerny. From there he soon travelled to Paris, the base for a career as a travelling virtuoso, his own technical brilliance inspired by hearing the demon violinist Paganini. One of the most remarkable pianists of his time, he won adulation from audiences. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, who became the mother of his three children, led to extensive travel abroad, and after their separation to an important change of direction, when, in 1847, he settled in Weimar as Director of Music to the court of the Grand Duchy. There he found solace in the presence of a Polish heiress, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, estranged wife of a Russian prince. Now he turned his attention to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the programmatic symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions, including his two piano concertos. In 1860 Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein moved to Rome, hoping to have her first marriage annulled, as it had already been by the Russian Orthodox Church, and thus to be able to marry Liszt. He followed in 1861, but, with final permission for marriage allegedly withheld, was able to settle in the city, lodging with a religious order, although not without some material comforts, and to turn his attention to church music, while the Princess continued her 24-volume study of the interior causes of the exterior weakness of the Catholic Church, living elsewhere in Rome. For the last 25 years of his life Liszt developed a pattern of existence that he described as ‘three-pronged’. In Rome he pursued his religious interests, returning to Weimar from 1869 to teach and advise a younger generation of musicians, and annually, now as a national hero, visiting Hungary, where he did much to foster national musical development. He died in 1886 while visiting Bayreuth, where his unforgiving daughter Cosima, widow of Richard Wagner, lived, concerned more with the continued propagation of her husband’s music than with her father.
By the age of fourteen Liszt had written two piano concertos, now lost. The first surviving concerto, the Piano Concerto No1 in E flat major, was sketched out in 1832, but only orchestrated in 1849, with the help of the young composer Joachim Raff, revised in 1853, and given its first performance in Weimar in February 1855 with Berlioz conducting, before further revision and publication in 1857. The concerto is novel in form, with movements that are cyclically connected, and caused some scandal by its inclusion of a triangle in the Scherzo, leading Hanslick, a hostile critic in Vienna, to describe the work as a ‘triangle concerto’.
The opening motif played by the strings has an important rôle to play in the concerto, answered by the octaves of the solo piano, which goes on to a cadenza, before the opening motif continues to be transformed in various ways. Muted strings open the B major Quasi adagio, before a rhapsodic passage for the solo piano and elements of quasi-recitative. A solo viola and then a solo clarinet lead to the soft triangle rhythms that introduce the Allegretto vivace, followed by the return of the opening motif, softly at first from the soloist, and then with full force from strings and trombones, before woodwind echoes of the Quasi adagio. The concerto ends with a virtual summary of what has gone before. Themes from the Quasi adagio are transformed, and elements derived from the opening motif of the whole work return, leading to a brilliant conclusion.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op 83
‘The long terror’ was Brahms’s description of his second piano concerto, a massively impressive work completed in 1881 and falling between the second and third of the four symphonies in order of composition. Brahms had started work on the concerto in 1878 and finished the score in the summer of 1881, which he spent happily at Pressbaum, near Vienna. For its first performance in November 1881, the composer appeared as soloist in Pest, following this, later in the same month, with performances nearer home with the Meiningen Court Orchestra under Hans von Bülow, who had espoused the cause of Brahms with the eagerness and enthusiasm that he had once shown for Wagner, before the latter eloped with his wife Cosima, illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt.
Brahms played the concerto in various towns with the Meiningen orchestra. In Vienna, however, where the first performance of the concerto took place in 1884, the critic Eduard Hanslick, a firm friend of Brahms, could only speak with reserve of the composer’s technical ability as a pianist whatever his admiration for the concerto itself, praising his rhythmic strength and masculine authority, and remarking that Brahms now had more important things to do than practise a few hours a day, a kind excuse for any technical imperfections there might have been in his playing.
The first movement of the B flat major Piano Concerto opens with a dialogue between the orchestra and soloist, initiated by the French horn. The orchestra adds a second important element to the thematic material, to be interrupted by a longish piano solo. On its return the orchestra has a third item of significance to add, before the piano turns expansively to the opening melody, as the movement takes its impressive course. The second movement, a form of scherzo in the key of D minor, is on the same enormous scale. It is followed by a slow movement, in which a solo cello proposes the first, tranquil theme, later to be varied by the soloist, before the appearance of other material, the pianist playing music of simple and limpid beauty above a low cello F sharp, accompanied by two clarinets. This brief passage of quiet meditation leads to the return of the first theme from the solo cello and the end of the movement. The concerto ends with a rondo that happily dispels any anxieties that might have lurked in the more ominous comers of the preceding movements, its mood inherited from Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms’s great predecessors in Vienna.
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Piano Concerto No 2 in A major, S 125
Liszt wrote his Piano Concerto No 2 in A major in 1839 and revised it during the Weimar years. It was published in 1863. Liszt had conducted the work in public for the first time in Weimar in 1857 with his pupil Hans von Bronsart as soloist. Structurally the concerto is in one continuous movement. Two thematic elements are presented in the opening Adagio, the first heard at the outset from the clarinets and the second with sharply marked accompanying figuration. A descending display of chromatic octaves leads to the B flat minor Allegro agitato assai, which introduces third and fourth thematic elements, the latter offered emphatically by the strings, reinforced by the bassoons. A brief cadenza leads to an E major section, marked Allegro moderato, which opens with the fourth theme now transformed, with the direction dolce espressivo. Here the first theme is heard again from a solo cello and the piano introduces a fifth theme, marked con abbandono. A brilliant cadenza is followed by a D flat major Allegro deciso, in which the fourth theme can be heard in another transformation, accompanying a metamorphosis of the second theme. The first theme undergoes a further transformation into a march in the final Marziale in A major, capped by the concluding Allegro animato, with its glissandi and stretto, providing a triumphant ending.
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16
When the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was still a student in Leipzig he had heard Schumann’s widow Clara play her husband’s piano concerto. His own piano concerto, written in 1868 during the course of a holiday in Denmark, is very much in the style suggested by the earlier work. The idiomatic piano-writing may well owe something to Liszt, who had seen the concerto in manuscript and to the composer’s astonishment had played it through faultlessly at sight. Grieg had been equally impressed by Liszt’s sight-reading of a violin sonata of his, in which every detail was included.
Grieg revised his Piano Concerto several times, as he did a number of his other compositions. He rejected at least one of Liszt’s suggestions on orchestration, the use of trumpets for the second theme in the first movement, eventually given to the cellos, but was grateful for the encouragement Liszt gave him. The concerto came at a time when the composer was turning away from the predominantly Danish atmosphere of his middle-class Norwegian childhood and the German emphasis of his later musical education towards the music of Norway itself. Whatever its formal debt to Schumann the Piano Concerto has about it much that is purely Norwegian, particularly in its wealth of melodic material.
The concerto opens with a drum-roll leading to the entry of the solo piano, descending the keyboard, followed by a theme given first to the wood-wind, repeated by the piano, which later takes up the second theme, suggested by the cellos. There is a development section which develops relatively little and in the final section a rhapsodic cadenza, followed by a brief coda. The second movement shifts to the key of D flat major, to be heard as the middle note of the chord of A major. The effect of the change is one of relief from the tumultuous activity that had gone before, orchestra and soloist proposing different melodies, but with no sense of conflict. The finale is dominated by a Norwegian dance-rhythm, that of the halling, but has time for the kind of rhapsodic piano-writing that has made the concerto one of the most successful and popular in the romantic repertoire.
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 54
In common with certain other musicians of the nineteenth century, Robert Schumann showed an early inclination to literature, a bent inherited, possibly, from his father, a bookseller, publisher and writer himself. His literary ability was to find expression in the influential Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik, which he edited and to which he contributed, and this was coupled, at first, with his ambition as a pianist, curtailed by a weakness in fingers of the right hand. Schumann’s major achievement, however, was to be as a composer, at first of piano music, then of songs, and finally, principally after his marriage, of orchestral works on a larger scale. It was in October, 1830, that Schumann became a pupil of Friedrich Wieck, a man who had made his goal in life the creation of a virtuoso in his young daughter Clara. Two years later lessons came to an end: Schumann had proved a dilatory pupil in thoroughbass and counterpoint, under the Leipzig theatre conductor Heinrich Dorn, and the increasing weakness of the fingers of his right hand made any career as a pianist impossible, in spite of attempts by doctors to effect a cure by various means, including Tierbäder, dipping the affected hand into the carcass of a freshly-killed animal.
The relationship with the Wieck family had a much profounder effect on Schumann’s life. By 1835 he had begun to show alarming signs of affection for the fifteen-year-old Clara Wieck, much to the dismay of her father, who in the following years was to try every means, including litigation, to prevent his favourite daughter sacrificing her career to a young man of unsteady and even of immoral character. In the end Wieck was unsuccessful, and Schumann married Clara in 1840, the famous Year of Song, in which he set so many poems to music.
Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor was started in the first years of marriage. In 1841, while the couple were still living in Leipzig, he completed what was intended as a single-movement Phantasie for piano and orchestra, which was later to form the first movement of the concerto. Late in 1844, after concert tours of varying success, and are turn of bouts of depression that were increasingly to afflict him, they moved to Dresden, where Schumann added two further movements. Clara had tried out the original first movement with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra soon after its composition and two weeks before the birth of the first of her seven children. The first public performance of the whole concerto was given in Dresden under Ferdinand Hiller in 1845, while Mendelssohn conducted a second performance in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1846. Clara Schumann was the soloist on both occasions. Schumann’s later career was to take him from Dresden to Düsseldorf, where in 1850 he assumed the position of Director of Music. In practical matters and in dealings with the City Council he was unsuccessful, and his tenure was, in any case, interrupted by his mental breakdown in 1854 and his death in an asylum two years later. Clara Schumann was to continue her career as a pianist, the greatest pianist of the age, according to the critic Eduard Hanslick, giving her last public concert in 1891, but continuing her musical activities until her death in 1896. The Piano Concerto was to remain part of her repertoire.
The first movement of the concerto opens with all the panache of an improvised piano solo. Structurally, however, the movement is in sonata form, the principal theme following in the oboe being taken up by the piano, and used, in essence, in later movements. The Intermezzo provides a lyrical interlude, where the piano predominates in narration of a curious story, reminding us of those shorter character-pieces that are so typical of the composer. This leads to the final movement, originally conceived as a separate Rondo, and with all the excitement that we should associate with a last movement. Here the soloist can cut a dash, and the composer demonstrate his control of form and his consistency of inspiration, even after an interval of four years between the composition of the first and the later movements.
Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 11
Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21
Relatively early in his career Chopin realised that he excelled in performance of more intimate delicacy than was generally possible in the concert hall. Nevertheless in a world that still made little distinction between composer and performer, he provided himself with compositions for piano and orchestra with which to make his name at the start of his career. It was only once he had established himself in Paris in the 1830s that he turned rather to the kind of playing that he made so much his own, performances that demanded great technical proficiency, but made no attempt to impress, as Liszt and Kalkbrenner did, by displays of sound and fury.
Born in Warsaw in 1810, the son of a French émigré father and a Polish mother, Chopin studied with the director of the Warsaw Conservatory, at first as a private pupil and later as a full-time student. At home he had already impressed audiences, but fame lay abroad, and in pursuit of that chimera he set out for Vienna, a city where he had already attracted some attention on an earlier visit. On the second occasion he achieved nothing, and travelled instead to Paris, while his native Poland, to his dismay, was in the turmoil of political disturbance that led to the firm establishment of Russian hegemony. It was in France that Chopin was to remain, favoured by Society as a teacher and as a performer.
The Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor was actually the second of the two to be composed and was written, like its companion, in Warsaw, before Chopin left Poland. The concerto was tried out in private and then given its first public performance on 11 October 1830, at the composer’s last Warsaw concert. On 2 November he left home for good. Chopin dedicated the work to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, and while it expresses something of his love for his closest companion, it summarises in its slow movement his feelings for the young singer Konstancja Gladkowska. He described the Adagio as “like dreaming in beautiful spring-time—by moonlight”.
The concerto relies heavily on the solo instrument, and Chopin himself played it on occasions without the assistance of an orchestra. The orchestral exposition has been considered by some to be too long, while others have found fault with the orchestration, and editors have sometimes seen fit to make changes to remedy these supposed faults. The idiom of the solo part remains entirely characteristic of the composer, with a slow movement “reviving in one’s soul beautiful memories”, as Chopin put it, and a final rondo providing a structure into which the composer’s genius fits rather less easily.
The Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor was, like No 1, initially tried out in a private performance at home. Two weeks later it was repeated in public, in a programme that included the Fantasy on Polish Airs, before an audience of some 800 and performed again five days later, together with the Krakowiak, using a louder piano, to overcome objections of inaudibility.
Reminiscent in style of the work of Spohr or Hummel, leading composers of the time, the F minor Concerto follows its dramatic first theme with a second, gentler subject, announced by the woodwind, before the entry of the soloist with the first striking theme. The romantic second movement has a brief orchestral introduction before the entry of the piano, in the mood of a Nocturne. The last movement may appear to bear all the marks of a Mazurka, its music characterised by novel orchestral effects, as the violins accompany one episode with the wood of the bow and a horn-call heralds the movement’s final section, during the course of which the second horn descends to the depths, while the piano brings the work to a climax.
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23
Tchaikovsky was one of the earlier students of the St Petersburg Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein, completing his studies there to become a member of the teaching staff at the similar institution established in Moscow by Anton Rubinstein’s brother, Nikolay. He was able to withdraw from teaching when a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, offered him financial support; this support continued for much of his life, although, according to the original conditions of the pension, they never met. Tchaikovsky was a man of neurotic diffidence, his self-doubt increased by his homosexuality. It has been suggested by some that an impending scandal caused him to take his own life at a time when he was at the height of his powers as a composer, although others have found this improbable. His music is thoroughly Russian in character, but, although he was influenced by Balakirev and the ideals of the Russian nationalist composers ‘The Five’, he may be seen as belonging rather to the more international school of composition fostered by the Conservatories that Balakirev, leader of ‘The Five’, so much deplored.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor was written towards the end of 1874. The composer played it through to Nikolay Rubinstein on Christmas Eve, 5 January 1875 in Western dating, seeking advice on the lay-out of the solo part. Rubinstein’s response was one of utter and devastating condemnation. The concerto was worthless and unplayable, with trite and awkward passages, bad, tawdry and borrowed. Tchaikovsky, diffident at the best of times, was appalled by this reaction. Nevertheless the work survived, with a successful first performance by Hans von Bülow in Boston in October, and subsequent revisions and performances in Moscow and St Petersburg. The concerto has continued to arouse popular enthusiasm and occasional critical disdain, the latter resulting largely from the work’s very popularity. It uses some borrowed material with Ukrainian folk-songs providing the first subject of the first movement and the opening theme of the last, and the French Il faut s’amuser et rire providing a lighter element in the second.
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18
The Russian composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873, the son of aristocratic parents. His father’s improvidence, however, was to lead to a change in the fortunes of the family, when increasing debts led to the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in St Petersburg. It was in that city that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered the Conservatory on a scholarship. The subsequent separation of his parents and failure in general subject examinations was to bring about Rachmaninov’s move to the Moscow Conservatory, where he was under the strict supervision of Nikolay Zverev. In Moscow he was to win considerable success as time went on, both as a performer and as a composer, although it was the second of these roles that seemed likely to be the more important. The Communist Revolution of 1917 was to bring many changes. While some musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile. Rachmaninov took the latter course, and found himself obliged to rely on his very considerable gifts as a pianist in order to support himself and his family. At the same time he was to continue working as a conductor. Composition inevitably had to take second or third place, and it was principally as a concert pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to audiences.
In 1897 Rachmaninov’s first symphony had been performed in St Petersburg under the direction of Glazunov, who, according to his wife’s later account, was drunk at the time. The work was badly played and received a hostile critical reception. César Cui, indeed, a surviving member of the Mightily Handful, the five leading Russian nationalist composers, described it as a student programme symphony of the Seven Plagues of Egypt, an unflattering judgement that contributed to the composer’s depression and loss of confidence.
The Piano Concerto in C minor was written in 1900 and 1901 and is dedicated to Dr Nikolay Dahl, under whom Rachmaninov had undergone a course of psychiatric treatment that restored his creative urge. The second and third movements of a work that was to prove to be one of the most popular romantic piano concertos, were completed in the summer of 1900 and the first movement in the following year. In November 1901 it was performed in Moscow under the direction of Rachmaninov’s cousin, Alexander Ziloti, with the composer as soloist, and was received with the greatest enthusiasm. The work has retained its position in the repertoire, although it has at the same time served as a model for regrettably vulgar imitations that have nothing of the innovative inspiration of the original.
The first movement of the concerto opens with eight dramatic chords from the piano, followed by the first theme from the strings, accompanied by piano arpeggios. The second subject, played by the soloist, is introduced by a phrase on the viola, rhapsodic style by the pianist in a development and in a recapitulation to which the soloist adds an initially martial element. In the slow movement the orchestra moves gently from the key of C minor to the remote key of E major, in which the soloist enters with characteristic figuration. The principal theme is introduced by flute and clarinet, before being taken up by the soloist. The more rapid central section of the movement suggests the mood of a scherzo, leading to a powerful cadenza. With scarcely a pause the orchestra introduces the final movement, a further cadenza leading to the first theme, with a second announced by the oboe and violas. Both are treated rhapsodically by the soloist, the second theme forming a romantic contrast to the more energetic rhythm of the first.
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Piano Concerto in G major
From his father, a Swiss engineer, Ravel inherited a delight in precision and incidentally in mechanical toys, while from his Basque mother he acquired a familiarity with something of Spanish culture. Born in the village of Ciboure in the Basque region of France in 1875, he spent his childhood and adolescence in Paris, starting piano lessons at the age of seven and from the age of fourteen studying piano in the preparatory piano class of the Conservatoire. He left the Conservatoire in 1895, after failing to win the necessary prizes, but resumed studies there three years later under Gabriel Fauré. His repeated failure to win the Prix de Rome, even when well established as a composer, disqualified in his fifth attempt in 1905, resulted in a scandal that led to changes in that august institution, of which Fauré then became director. Ravel’s career continued successfully in the years before 1914 with a series of works of originality, including important additions to the piano repertoire, to the repertoire of French song and, with commissions from Dyagilev, to ballet. During the war he enlisted in 1915 as a driver and the war years left relatively little time and will for composition, particularly with the death of his mother in 1917. By 1920, however, he had begun to recover his spirits and resumed work, with a series of compositions, including an orchestration of La valse, rejected by Dyagilev, causing a rupture in their relations, and a number of engagements as a pianist and conductor in concerts of his own works at home and abroad. All this was brought to an end by his protracted final illness, attributed to a taxi accident in 1932, which led to his eventual death in 1937.
The two piano concertos of Ravel, the second, for left hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had lost his right arm in the war, were written between 1929 and 1931. The G major Concerto, at first conceived as a Basque Rhapsody, was dedicated to Marguerite Long, who was the soloist in the first performance at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on 14 January 1933. Originally conceived as a Divertissement for Ravel’s own concert use, it is relatively lightly scored, although the percussion section includes triangle, drum, cymbals, side-drum, gong, wood-block and whip. Ravel claimed to have taken the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet as a model for his Adagio, and for the composition of the whole work, which took him some time, made a close study of scores of concertos by Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The jazz element of the first movement, with suggestions of Gershwin, yet fully absorbed into Ravel’s own idiom, leads to the beautiful and nostalgic piano solo that starts the second movement. The motor rhythms of the last movement and the lively syncopations complete a concerto of elegance, brilliance and wit.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C major, Op 26
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and as a composer unti1 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto. In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
In 1920 Prokofiev returned from America to Europe and was eventually joined by his mother in Paris. There was renewed contact with Dyagilev and talk now of staging The Buffoon (Chout), commissioned and completed in 1915 after the rejection of the earlier commissioned ballet Ala and Lolly, which became the Scythian Suite, to the distress of Glazunov at the Conservatory. There was a further concert tour of America and a return to France for the staging of Chout, followed by a summer in Brittany working on a new piano concerto, for which he relied to some extent on earlier material, written before he left Russia. In France he renewed his friendship with the symbolist poet Konstantin Bal’mont, who had taken refuge abroad after 1918. Prokofiev was the soloist at the first performance of the new concerto, which took place in Chicago on 16 December 1921, two weeks before the opening of his opera The Love for Three Oranges in the same city.
The Piano Concerto in C major, Op 26, opens with a Russian theme, a clarinet solo, written in 1916–17, immediately followed by an energetic Allegro, its impetus continued with the entry of the solo piano, a third theme being introduced by the soloist, to form the basis of a movement that ends with an ascending sequence first written down in 1911. The second movement is in the form of a theme and variations, the melody itself sketched in 1913 and at first presented primarily by the woodwind, before the five variations, two of which had been written in 1916–17. The first variation is given to the soloist, the second accompanied by a stormy piano part, the third relaxing to lead to an Andante meditativo, and the brusque fifth variation followed by the re-appearance of the theme, with percussive accompaniment from the soloist. The last movement makes use of two themes from a string quartet started but abandoned in 1918. A bassoon melody starts the movement, two further themes offering a lyrical decrease of tension, before the percussive energy of the conclusion.
George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Rhapsody in Blue
The American composer George Gershwin, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, was deflected from street games in down-town Manhattan into music by the family purchase of a piano in 1910. Four years later he had left school to earn a living as a pianist and song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley, before long contributing his own songs with growing success. With some tuition in the techniques of composition he turned his attention, at the same time, to music of a less immediate commercial appeal. His principal contemporary reputation, however, rested largely on the songs he wrote for Broadway with his brother Ira Gershwin, both aspects of his career coming together in his black opera Porgy and Bess, which he started to write when he was at the height of his commercial fame, in 1934.
It was ten years earlier, in 1924, that Gershwin had responded to a commission from Paul Whiteman, an exponent of symphonic jazz, for a concerto for piano and jazz band. The result was Rhapsody in Blue, a work that represents a step in the American search for a musical identity. It was orchestrated for Gershwin by Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé. Whiteman himself had enjoyed an earlier career as a viola-player in major American orchestras in Denver and San Francisco, before becoming one of the best known of the post-War band-leaders. Gershwin’s jazz concerto was given its first performance at Whiteman’s first concert, held at the Aeolian Hall, New York, when it achieved success in musical surroundings that seemed distinctly unfavourable, as Whiteman attempted to convince an unsympathetic audience of the viability of his form of jazz. With its bow to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, Rhapsody in Blue remains thoroughly American in its melodies and rhythms and enjoys continued popularity in the concert hall, a souvenir from a Golden age of jazz, to which it had made its own contribution.
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GREAT PIANO CONCERTOS (10-CD Box Set)