Piano Concerto No. 1 (Brahms)
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, is a work for piano and orchestra composed by Johannes Brahms in 1858. The composer gave the work's public debut in Hanover, Germany, the following year.
performed February 2011
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This concerto is written in the traditional three movements and is approximately 40 to 50 minutes long.
- Maestoso (D minor)
- The first movement is in sonata form, divided into five sections: orchestral introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. This movement is large, lasting between 20 to 25 minutes. This strict adherence to forms used in the Classical Period earned Brahms a reputation for being musically "conservative." The theme heavily makes use of arpeggiated chords and trills. Within the orchestral introduction other themes are introduced, and the thematic material is further developed by both orchestra and soloist.
- Adagio (D major)
- Rondo: Allegro non troppo (D minor → D major)
- The structure of the Rondo finale is similar to that of the rondo of Beethoven's third piano concerto. There are three themes present in this rondo; the second theme may be considered a strong variation of the first. The third theme is introduced in the episode but is never explicitly developed by the soloist, instead the soloist is "integrated into the orchestral effect." A cadenza follows the bulk of the rondo, with an extensive coda that develops the first and third themes appearing afterward. The coda is in the parallel major, D major.
Brahms worked on the composition for some years, as was the case with many of his works. After a prolonged gestation period, it was first performed on January 22, 1859, in Hanover, Germany, when Brahms was just 25 years old. Five days later, at Leipzig, an unenthusiastic audience hissed at the concerto, while critics savaged it, labelling it "perfectly unorthodox, banal and horrid". In a letter to his close personal friend, the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms stated, "I am only experimenting and feeling my way", adding sadly, "all the same, the hissing was rather too much."
Brahms originally conceived the work as his first major work for orchestra, what would have been his first symphony. After that proved unsatisfactory, he began molding it into a sonata for two pianos. He sought much advice from his friend Julius Otto Grimm. However, he also found that unsatisfactory. Brahms ultimately decided that he had not sufficiently mastered the nuances of orchestral colour to sustain a symphony, and instead relied on his skills as a pianist and composer for the piano to complete the work as a concerto. Brahms only retained the original material from the work's first movement; the remaining movements were discarded and two new ones were composed, yielding a work in the more usual three-movement concerto structure.
Brahms' biographers often note that the first sketches for the dramatic opening movement followed quickly on the heels of the 1854 suicide attempt of the composer's dear friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, an event which caused great anguish for Brahms. He finally completed the concerto two years after Schumann's death in 1856, by which time his relationship (which was most likely platonic) with Schumann's widow, Clara Schumann, had grown into a lifelong friendship.
The degree to which Brahms' personal experience is embedded in the concerto is hard to gauge since several other factors also influenced the musical expression of the piece. The epic mood links the work explicitly to the tradition of the Beethoven symphony that Brahms sought to emulate. The finale of the concerto, for example, is clearly modeled on the last movement of Beethoven's third piano concerto, while the concerto's key of D minor is the same as both Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Mozart's dramatic Piano Concerto No. 20.
Symphonic and chamber techniques
The work reflects Brahms' effort to combine the piano with the orchestra as equal partners in a symphonic-scale structure, in emulation of the classical concertos of Mozart and Beethoven. It thus differs from earlier Romantic concertos, where the orchestra effectively accompanied the pianist. Even for the young Brahms, the concerto-as-showpiece had little appeal. Instead, he enlisted both orchestra and soloist in the service of the musical ideas; technically difficult passages in the concerto are never gratuitous, but extend and develop the thematic material. Such an approach is thoroughly in keeping with Brahms' artistic temperament, but also reflects the concerto's symphonic origins and ambitions. His effort drew on both chamber music techniques and the pre-classical Baroque concerto grosso, an approach that later was fully realized in Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. This first concerto also demonstrates Brahms' particular interest in scoring for the timpani and the horn, both of whose parts are difficult and prominent.
Although a work of Brahms' youth, this concerto is a mature work that points forward to his later concertos and his First Symphony. Most notable are its scale and grandeur, as well as the thrilling technical difficulties it presents. As time passed, the work grew in popularity until it was recognized as a masterpiece.Alfred Brendel considers it among the "purest Brahms", stating that to it "...particularly the D-Minor Concerto, goes my love."
- Vladimir Horowitz with Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony (March 17, 1935).
- Wilhelm Backhaus with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Adrian Boult (November 28, 1932).
- Artur Schnabel with George Szell and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
- Arthur Rubinstein with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
- Claudio Arrau with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
- Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra also recorded the concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy and with Arthur Rubinstein (Amsterdam, 1973).
- Clifford Curzon with George Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra
- Emil Gilels with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
- Glenn Gould with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, famous for Bernstein's introductory remarks to the audience in which he said he was not in agreement with Gould's "remarkably broad tempi and ... frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications."
- Bruno Leonardo Gelber with Franz-Paul Decker and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, winner of the Grand Prix Du Disque
- Horacio Gutierrez with André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- Radu Lupu with Edo de Waart and the London Symphony Orchestra
- Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
- Krystian Zimerman with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
- Krystian Zimerman with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1985, Deutsche Grammophon)
- Stephen Kovacevich with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra
- Maurizio Pollini with Christian Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden (October 14, 2011, Deutsche Grammophon)
- Emanuel Ax with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
- Hélène Grimaud with Andris Nelsons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (2013, Deutsche Grammophon)
Use in film
- Ewen, David. Music for the Millions. p. 108. ISBN 1-4067-3926-X. Retrieved 18 December 2009.
- Brahms, Johannes; Avins, Styra (1997). Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters at Google Books. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. page 50. ISBN 0-19-924773-0.
- The New York Review of Books, July 11, 2013
- Conrad Wilson: Notes on Brahms: 20 Crucial Works (Edinboro, Saint Andrew Press: 2005) p. 16
- Brahms' Orchestral Works (free music score of this composition available. In public domain.)
- Piano Concerto No. 1: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project