Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 1 in Eb

performed by The London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado
I couldn’t find the above recording on YouTube, but this is Ms. Argerich with the Berlin Radio Symphony (this version is almost as good as the one I have become accustomed to listening to)
“Das versteht ihr alle nicht, haha!” (None of you understand this, haha!) 
Or at least how some say begins the opening of the first movement of this concerto. (It fits rhythmically). Regardless, this twenty-minute piece in four movements is one hell of a ride. 
The writing of the first of Liszt’s two formal piano concertos (as opposed to his many other works for piano and orchestra) spanned more than two decades, with sketches dating back as early as 1830, when he was only 19, and the final version dated 1849. It wasn’t premiered until 1855 in Weimar, with the composer at the piano and Berlioz at the podium. It was finally published in 1856, after some changes made by the composer. 
As far as concertos go, this one has something special. It is a romantic-era piece through-and-through, but it is fun, high-energy, and not weighed down by any real drama or unnecessary sappy emotion. It’s a short piece to begin with, but it still feels like it’s over in no time, because there’s not a dull moment. It’s 20 minutes of Lisztian piano bravura, made all the more exciting with an orchestra to interact with, respond to, and support it. 
This piece is performed as one large movement, but clearly divided into four sections all played attaca. (I’m not going to lie; to sort out a lot of the structure of this more clearly, I referenced a fantastic analysis here on Youtube. It is the first of two parts.)
The first movement opens with (at least to me) a commanding, German-sounding statement by the orchestra (the one that is supposed to match the meter of the German phrase we opened with). This ‘punctuation’ phrase is a fundamental idea of the piece, and will show up

in different places and in different ways throughout the composition. The piano then thunders in with its triplet figure (in octaves) all the way up the keyboard, setting the mood for what we are about to enjoy. The exclamation mark played by the brass and woodwinds that made the ‘haha’ in the beginning phrase remains in the background as the piano does its thing, jumping almost instantly into a cadenza, introducing new material and references the opening. The beginning statement shows up behind the piano after its cadenza, much softer and quieter, as the piano dances around some more with bits of the cadenza. This happens twice. There is a dialogue between the piano and clarinet that introduces a much softer, more lyrical passage, which leads into a ‘beauty pageant’ (that’s what my old conductor called it). We have a statement echoed by a number of different instruments, as if they’re prancing out one by one to show off, and walking off before the next one appears. The piano begins the procession, then the clarinet, violin, then cellos come in under the piano. The opening theme is restated quietly, but this time extended, by the strings and bassoon, down and back up. The clarinet takes up part of the cadenza theme from earlier while the piano climbs a chromatic scale to end the piece quietly. That’s it for the first ‘movement’.

In keeping (rarely) with tradition, Liszt’s second ‘movement’ is a slow one, and begins as quietly as the first ended. Does something sound familiar here? It is much softer and slower, but it’s a chunk of that same persistent theme from the first movement. Do you hear it? Brilliance. The piano comes in later in this movement, after the landscape has been established, and continues the ethereal, peaceful melody before getting a bit more dramatic. When that piano comes in strong on the lower register, over the strings, it’s just sweepingly gorgeous. This goes on for a bit, and the end of this second section is started by the flute. It sounds like something out of an Offenbach overture, as the oboes and strings echo what the flute said. I still kind of half expect a can-can to start up. 
Instead we get the third section of the piece, introduced oddly by the triangle. This movement makes up a non-traditional section of the piece. Where a scherzo had an established place in a symphony, concertos were traditionally fast-slow-fast three movement works. Liszt introduces this funzy section with a triangle, which, as William Russel Smith states was seen as “beneath the dignity of serious concert music of the time.” Imagine a triangle as being controversial… But it was. This section opens with clicky bits from the triangle and pizzicato strings, paving the way for the piano to introduce the entire theme for this section, a strong dramatic one in contrast with the relative peacefulness of the last section. It’s energetic and jumpy, with the same ‘haha’ idea from the very opening showing up around the piece as the piano does lots of trills and fancy things. These are the two parts of the scherzo, really: the piano’s theme upon its entrance, and then the trill-fillled jumpy bits in response to the strings. It makes sense when you listen to it, trust me. Much fun is had with these two ideas, as well as the theme from the opening of the first movement in all its glory, but with roles reversed. This time, it’s the brass that state it, while the strings respond with their ‘haha’. The piano gets to do its cadenza again. Honestly, this is where the piece gets a bit confusing for me and I lose a bit of what Liszt may have been thinking. The same Offenbachesque bit from the end of the second section joins the party, so everything is very familiar, to be sure, but a bit like worlds colliding. Piano cadenza entrance yet again. All of this review and reintroduction and adventure, and we still haven’t gotten to the fourth section yet. It’s a bit lively, this piece. But then there it is. 
The finale. Also, trust me, I spent lots of time listening and relistening to this piece to keep track of all this, and while one may get bogged down in keeping track of all that I’ve written above, all of that is mostly for my personal edification, and the piece itself is a joy to listen to. All that having taken place, then, Liszt doesn’t introduce anything new, but just recycles previous material in new ways. The opening of this section begins with a march-like statement that is almost identical to the lyrical bit in the second section played by the piano. It’s stunning to realize this. Contrasting material is also derived from lyrical parts of the second section, and all of these build in intensity and the little remixed bits begin to come back together and sound more and more familiar. The piano is doing things in octaves or with eighth notes against triplets to create ornate polyrhythms. All of this builds to create a grand finish, giving the orchestra the final say rather than the piano. 
While all of that sounds complicated, a few listens to the piece will allow you to hear most of what is going on without looking once at the score. The themes are bold and familiar, even if you can’t quite identify why they feel so. It just adds a little something to the piece, even for the novice listener, to hear something so intricately written and tightly knit. For someone with an actual working knowledge of musical structure and theory (unlike me), it is an insight into how creative and inventive Liszt was and what a vision he had for his work. Sonata form (which was standard operating procedure for most other concertos of the time, and later)
is not traditionally used in this work ; rather Liszt uses a cyclical form (described above) to reduce, reuse, and recycle themes he had already introduced in new and inventive ways. Liszt’s fellow countryman Béla Bartók (according to Hungarian naming conventions, should be last name then first name) described it as “the first perfect realisation of cyclic sonata form, with common themes being treated on the variation principle”
This piece I feel is perfectly suited to Ms. Argerich. I’ve talked about her in at least the Gaspard de la Nuit and Chopin’s ballade posts, and not necessarily with the greatest admiration of her interpretation of either of those works (more for the Ravel), but I find her performance here to be stunningly great. As she has said in interviews before (and in the garbly beginning of this compilation video of her playing octave passages of some famous pieces, one being this piece, the Liszt octave sections beginning here. Honestly, if you don’t watch the whole video above and just listen, at least watch these excerpts of her amazing prowess at the keyboard), she is not afraid of speed. It is her strength, to the point (in my opinion) that it can affect her playing, not technically but emotionally. Sometimes I feel like if she would take a deep breath, show a small bit of restraint in her tempi, and proceed with slightly more caution, her interpretations would carry much more depth. This coming from a kid who is still working on playing all his scales… 
Anyway, her talents for power and speed and perfect accuracy sit her perfectly in the driver’s seat for this one. It’s intense, big, fast, powerful, and exciting, with a few more delicate moments. This is definitely a show off piece, and it seems Argerich doesn’t even break a sweat, even during the polyrhythmic or octave passages during the fourth movement as the whole thing barrels to a finish. 
This piece reminds me a bit of the Rimsky-Korsakov concerto and the Scriabin concerto, but for different reasons. It’s a compare and contrast situation. It, like the RK, has almost a fairytale, fun, storybook kind of enchanting excitement about it, but this one even more so, in its dazzling and easy-to appreciate complexity. There’s not one moment where it bores you. It has textures and highs and lows and something to hold your attention and pull you along at every step along the way. 

With regards to the Scriabin, well, it was more of an opinion. I opened the post about that piece by talking about the enjoyment of absolute music and how not every piece has to make you think or wonder or contemplate human existence or represent feelings and experiences (as most music does for me), but that it can be just cleanly and purely enjoyable to listen to. But then I did start talking about emotions and thoughts and feelings and stuff. Also, long about the intro of the final movement of the Scriabin, I confess: sometimes I get bored. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and I love it for its richness and fluidity, and although it’s an apples vs. oranges situation, Liszt and his first concerto win here. I don’t get bored, wonder what to think or what’s going on or what I should pay attention to, and it is an even purer, more glistening expression of absolute music. The listener feels excited and privileged just to hold on and go along for the ride. It’s an experience just to hear (not to mention see) this kind of music. It’s a show off piece for composer and pianist alike. It is a piece Liszt wrote for himself, it seems, and maybe, by extension, for Ms. Argerich. Also, I have been taking tons of cold meds and writing this made me tired. Enjoy. Off to listen to something less frenetic. 
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3 thoughts on “Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 1 in Eb

  1. My analysis: “This is a somewhat unusual concerto where Liszt has included a little scherzo. So, actually it consists of four movements, but Liszt however divided this concerto into three movements, and he sure had his reasons.
    The first movement is a complete sonata movement including development and recapitulation. However the second subject does not reappear until the last movement.
    The first (slow) part of the second movement consist of a exposition and a development, but instead of the expected recapitulation Liszt introduces a new subject (which becomes more important later on) that takes us directly into the scherzo part of the second movement. In the scherzo-rondo, two themes are alternating (three times) and the first one is always in Eb minor, whereas the second one appears in a different key each time.
    The scherzo-rondo is interrupted by material from the development of the first movement which takes us back to the introduction of the first movement. But we’re not in the right key yet, so the last subject from the slow part of the second movement appears to establish E flat major, and this time the chords from the introduction are firmly established in E flat major, and we move into the final movement (III).
    This is basically a recapitulation of the slow movement and the scherzo-rondo, but the last subject from the slow part of the second movement is given much more space and only the first subject from the scherzo rondo appears briefly. The coda is dominated by a transformation of the second subject of the first movement, and the concerto ends with material from the development of the first movement.”

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