Sunday, November 27, 2016

Brahms: the Piano Concerto #1, with its monumental first movement, influenced my musical ear throughout high school

Marc Piollet and the Youth Symphony of Berlin play the Brahms Piano Concerto #1 in D Minor with score on youtube  provided by composer and Pianist Francois Weigel.

I got to know this work in 10th grade from an old Angel recording (I think the pianist was Arturo Michaelangeli).  I was quite taken by the majestic character of the first movement in particular.  The melodramatic music did influence the style of composition of my own D Minor Sonata at age 16.
The first and second movements are both in 6/4 time, unusual – and truly sextuple in nature (not triple). The slow movement is in the parallel major of D, which would normally seem trite, but it works out well here.  (Chopin did the same thing in the E Minor concerto.)

The harmonic style of the first movement is noticeable for many pivot points among various tonalities, with a tendency to hang in the dominant of each tonality.  The majestic opening theme starts in B-flat, then migrates to A, before we figure out that this is the dominant of the main key. D Minor.  The recapitulation of the first movement will state the same motive a tritone away from B-fat – E Major, before naturally going back to D Minor through the dominant A.   The first movement is also very formal in its adherence to strict and easy-to-follow sonata form.  Brahms was 25 when he composed most of this.  Sometimes early works of romantic composers tend to be long, but follow conventions of sonata form laid out by their predecessors.  As they grow mature, they experiment with form (as did Beethoven). At a couple of points, Brahms previews Mahler's later style of dissolving tonic major into parallel (Picardy) minor.

The first movement has a particularly violent close.

The second movement is like a prayer, with part harmonization that seems crude yet is effective.

But the Rondo Finale, in 2/4, has always seemed a bit of a letdown.  It is a little bit like the finale of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with a touch of Hungarian flavor.  The harmonic manner is a but trite, with overuse of posturing on the dominant, especially toward the end, and no “big tune” yet.

The piano writing, with lots of chords and arpeggios, and trills at times, but without the elaborate virtuosity of, say, Chopin.  Some scholars feel that the Brahms piano concerti are rather like symphonies with piano (although Brahms waited until he was 40 to compose his first “true” symphony).  Nevertheless, Brahms is quite difficult to play, and the Second Concerto in B-flat is considered even more difficult.

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