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Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor Op.15

Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1

The First Piano Concerto had its origins in a symphony in D minor on which Brahms had been working intermittently between 1854 and 1856. The symphony seems to have cost him a great deal of effort, and the lack of confidence in his ability to orchestrate properly led him to make an arrangement of the work for two pianos. When Brahms played over the three completed movements with Clara Schumann, he admitted later to his friend, Joseph Joachim, that he was dissatisfied with the entire project: 'I have neither judgement', he wrote, 'nor any more power over the work. It will never come to anything'. The idea of a symphony was finally abandoned, but two of the movements were later used in other works; the first became the opening movement of the Piano Concerto in D minor and the second, a sombre Sarabande, the impressive and moving funeral music ('Behold all flesh') in the 'Requiem'. The concerto's première at a Gewandhaus concert at Leipzig in January 1859, with Brahms as the soloist and Joachim conducting, met with hostility, due no doubt to the uncompromising and tempestuous first movement. But Brahms never lost faith in the ultimate qualities of the work, although he was reputed to have said after the first performance that his next piano concerto would be better. He continued to make revisions to the score until 1873, by which time his First Symphony (in C minor) had been published and he had gained recognition as one of Germany's leading composers.

Comparison between Brahms's two piano concertos usually results in the First being attacked for its crudeness and general lack of polish when measured against the more mellifluous Second, but whatever refinements are lacking in the D minor Concerto are amply made up for in its wealth of magnificent melodic ideas. The highly charged emotional level of the opening movement suggests the composer's inner conflicts at the time of its conception. The grief he felt at the recent death of his friend and devoted admirer, Robert Schumann, and his emotional involvement with Clara are possible explanations for the turbulence of the music. The massive proportions of the concerto, which are truly architectural in design, have led to its being labelled 'a symphony with piano obbligato' - a not altogether inappropriate description, except that the exacting and finely wrought solo part is much more than an obbligato.

First Movement: Maestoso

The long and important orchestral tutti which begins the movement contains the main thematic material and the impassioned first subject is declaimed like a rebellious protest on the strings over a continuous drum roll. Three subsidiary themes appear in the course of the exposition; the first on violins and clarinets in octaves, then a theme in B flat minor and finally a melodic idea which is ushered in by the piano on its first entry. This last fragmentary melody becomes the movement's second subject in F major when it is taken up by the strings, with an accompanying figuration for the piano. The second subject is treated to considerable elaboration and development before a brief pianissimo coda closes the exposition. The development section begins with bold octaves for the piano, accompanied at intervals by the initial phrase of the first subject in the orchestra, and is followed by the B flat minor subsidiary theme, now transposed into B minor. This leads to the reprise which resembles the exposition in outline, but is enriched and amplified with the first subject now played by the piano. The movement terminates with a long and brilliant coda.

Second Movement: Adagio

This begins with a beautiful and sustained melody on the strings while the bassoons fill in the harmony with a counter-subject. The theme is continued by the horns (reduced in this movement to two) and the piano enters with a descant. In the original manuscript, Brahms inscribed the words: 'Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini', which may have been a reference to Schumann whom he sometimes addressed as 'Mein Herr Domine'. In the middle-section a new theme in thirds on the clarinets appears and is developed before the recapitulation reintroduces the first subject. A short cadenza precedes the final tutti.

Third Movement: Rondo, Allegro ma non troppo

The main Rondo theme is introduced at the outset by the piano. It will be noticed that the first three notes are in fact the opening phrase of the first movement's second subject, now heard in the minor key. The theme is taken over by the orchestra and, after elaboration, the first episode in F major is heard on the piano, with the cellos entering at the fifth bar. The second episode is treated fugally and when the Rondo theme reappears in the orchestra the piano accompanies with broken octaves. There is a return of the second episode, this time in the tonic key, followed by a short cadenza for the soloist at the conclusion of which the horns outline the initial notes of the Rondo theme. In the coda piano and orchestra unite to bring the concerto to a powerful conclusion.

John Nicole


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