Brahms Piano Concerto no. 1 in Dm, op. 15

performed by Claudio Arrau and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink

… and here we are, at the end of a very long string of piano works taking us from the heart of the Classical era almost a hundred years forward to one of the largest piano concertos of the time. This is only an opus no. 15, completed in 1858, when the composer was only 25 years old. It was his first orchestral work to be performed, and for that and other reasons is an important work in the composer’s timeline.
Unlike the pieces we talked about earlier this week, this piece was not a composition the young Brahms shared with the Schumanns; it in fact was written years later, as we shall discuss. The piece was originally conceived in 1854 as a sonata for two pianos, but later that same year it was changing form, and the composer decided it would be a four-movement symphony. It seems the first movement had already been orchestrated and kind of completed, to some extent or other, with piano scores of some of the other movements, before it began to take its final shape as a piano concerto. One Julius Otto Grimm had helped Brahms with the orchestration of the first movement, and his dear friend Joseph Joachim (the same dear friend who’d sent him off to the Schumann residence) kept in close correspondence with him about the piece as it progressed to its final state, with only the first movement from the original symphony idea kept. The second and third movements were written anew, and the piece in this original state was performed three times, in Hanover, Leipzig, and Hamburg, with the first two performances rather disastrously received. Apparently the only positive review of the work from the Leipzig performance was in Schumann’s (former) own music journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, being “savaged” by all other critics. Wikipedia says:

Brahms wrote to Joachim “I am only experimenting and feeling my way,”[1] adding sadly, “all the same, the hissing was rather too much.”

I find this sentiment from Brahms touching, almost surprising, because I’ve always viewed him as a confident, proud, dare I say pompous kind of successful composer, but he clearly got no sympathy for this work he’d clearly put tons of time and effort into.

The third performance, in Hamburg, was a great success, and Brahms expressed his delight to Clara.

It’s important to mention the significance of this piece in another light. As you may or may not remember, 1854 was the same year that Brahms’ revered friend and mentor Robert Schumann was committed to an asylum, dying two years later. While the men’s relationship was likely a more secular one, as many know, Brahms had very strong (and complicated) feelings for the now-widowed Clara Schumann. They, too, had secular common ground, both being famous pianists and composers, but Brahms’ feelings went beyond professional respect. It is during this difficult and emotional time in the young composer’s life that this piece came to be. It is said that the stormy, heavy opening was composed shortly after Schumann’s first suicide attempt in 1854, one of the factors leading to his eventual commitment to an asylum. Wikipedia gives a balanced
view of this biographical nature:

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.

So, again, inspiration is hardly ever as easy as “so-and-so was sad because X or Y happened.” But it can certainly factor in.
And one can see how it would suit a piece like this. Let’s get to the music. The piece opens enormously, timpani, orchestra. One can perhaps hear the piece’s original symphonic intentions in this large, towering introduction. The first movement is a traditional but quite large sonata-form movement, with the somewhat lengthy orchestral introduction, then the exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. This makes for quite a traditional first movement, even without a repeat of said exposition, and his “adherence to Classical forms” was one of the reasons he gained a reputation for being a conservative traditionalist. There’s a ton going on in this 20-plus minute first movement. The orchestra introduces a ton of material, a later theme of which the piano picks up for its entrance to the piece, and these themes are developed throughout this monstrosity of a movement. The entrance of the piano, relative to the stormy, tense nature of the piece thus far, is surprisingly quiet and subdued, but it eventually reaches its own dramatic heights.
Something of interest in this piece is the interaction between the piano and orchestra. It was almost another two decades after this piece before Brahms succeeded in completing his first symphony, but the balance struck here between symphonic development and the placement of the soloist is quite nice, unlike oh, Chopin’s concertos, where the orchestra feels like an obligatory guest to a party of some kind, awkwardly participating, but not really a part of the action.
The backbone of this piece is strongly with the orchestra, but it never loses its focus as a piano concerto. The piece, as evidenced by the first movement alone, is highly virtuosic, but it isn’t a show-off piece. There are no gratuitous moments of piano spotlight with the orchestra relegated to a platter on which to serve the soloist. It’s clear that Brahms’ focus in on the music and its ‘plot’ or development, and these two parties, orchestra and piano, work together to further this development. Wikipedia says:

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…

… and that’s nice. Brahms’ writing in this movement ranges from the tumultuous opening and some of the piano passages in the development, to quiet, delicate, chamber-like moments that give this movement great contrast and scope. The piece ends with almost frightening power and virtuosity. The first movement in the featured recording above clocks in at more than 24 minutes.
It is enormous. By the time the long movement and all its development and storm and contrast is over, it’s about time for something a bit lighter. The middle movement is in ternary form, and decidedly quieter and more peaceful. If the first movement’s emotional turbulence was to express the death (or prior suicide attempt) of R. Schumann, then one could kind of logically attribute the tender warmth of the second movement to the composer’s feelings for Clara. It is in D major, and laid out in a ternary form. It opens with bassoon and strings, in stark contrast with everything we have just experienced, a welcomed breather. It at times borders on melancholy or somber, but for long passages it is peaceful and contemplative, tender and quite mature sounding, the writing of not just music, but emotion.
The final movement begins in D minor, and is in rondo form, with three major themes, the first two somewhat similar. This movement is also the only one in which we get a cadenza from the soloist, adding to the feel of the equal playing field that these parties are on.
The piano begins the movement for the first time in the whole concerto, and gives us a striking, almost foreign, dance-like melody to begin the rondo (it reminds me a bit of the final movement of the third symphony he would write a few decades later). It’s playful but also kind of dark (D minor), but will eventually end in D major, and we can hear a brighter variation/related theme shortly after the movement begins, and it’s far more lyrical than the opening, almost jagged theme. I feel this smoother, brighter melody is the real heart of this movement. Less than three minutes in, you could be excused for thinking we were galloping toward the end of the piece, as the piano runs an enormous scale all the way down the keyboard, seemingly heading for some great finish, but no. It quiets down a bit and we get the A theme again. The piano takes the lead here more than in any other movement, and it’s very…. convincing, charismatic writing. It feels for the first time like the piano is in command, with the orchestra marching behind, all toward some great destination, with beautiful tender moments to contrast.
Also, I’m a sucker for a good cadenza. Both of the Schumanns wrote cadenzas that served not just as musical soapboxes or spotlights but to forward the interest and development of the piece, and Brahms does this here in his rondo, giving the cadenza its own little section inside the movement, but still not gratuitous or out of place, very tasteful.
It’s also the shortest movement of the piece, and there’s never a dull moment. This is not a rondo of “here comes this or that again,” but one that moves forward. There’s a lot of pressure on the composer at this point, I feel, with such a monumental work up to this point, its symphonic beginnings, not to end this giant work with a flop, but also not to exhaust the listener. That’s a fine line to walk. It’s already been something like 40 minutes, and you can’t go out on a throwaway movement. This rondo is tightly and logically organized, with identifiable themes and a finish suitable for a work of such magnitude, commanding and powerful.
As to recordings… I listened to many recordings produced far more recently than this one with Arrau and Haitink. Perhaps its that this is the recording I came to know the piece with, but I was eager to hear more modern recordings like Chailly and Friere with the Gewandhaus (an orchestra that has a history with this piece) or Brendel and Abbado with Berlin. Both have better sound quality than the Arrau recording (Chailly and Friere for sure) but there’s something about the Arrau, perhaps his (typically) slower tempo that makes the whole piece seem heavier, more dramatic, struggling, and also more shimmeringly beautiful where appropriate. It seems none of the other recordings reached the ferocity and drama that this piece demands like Arrau and Haitink. But that’s just me.
I was talking to some friends a few weeks back about how intimidating it was to write about a piece like this, and I sent them links to YouTube performances to listen to. Some of them did, and couldn’t believe that Brahms was only 25 years old when he completed this work.
It’s not just musical maturity; the almost sappy over-the-top Romanticism of some of the early works we discussed (as wonderful and precocious as they are) has been polished off here, rounded out by a maturity of expression, most likely gained from not just musical experience, but life experience, having lived more (granted only a few years more, but a very formative few years). It’s perhaps surprising for some to listen to a piece as grand as this and think that it was a flop at its first two performances, with the composer himself at the piano, because it’s now considered such a staple of the repertoire; thankfully views changed.
It seems backwards, almost, that we’ve already done three of Brahms’ four symphonies before getting around to his first big orchestral work, but here it finally his. There are still a few concertos left, and a huge body of chamber music. All in good time.
And that’s finally le fin for our more-than-a-month of piano works that covered close to a century of European tradition. And to contrast with that, our piece for next week is a work written more than a century after this one, or only a few decades ago. See you then.


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