performed by Sviatoslav Richter and the Bavarian State Orchestra under Carlos Kleiber
I see I am unable to write a Concerto for a virtuoso; I must think of other things.
Dvorak, about his piano concerto
… there is nothing in Liszt that is anywhere near as difficult to play as the Dvořák Piano Concerto – a magnificent piece of music, but one of the most ungainly bits of piano writing ever printed…
Think of the most famous composers you know, the select few (relatively speaking) who grace concert halls constantly, sometimes ad nauseam, with their most famous works. One of the most famous, most timeless forms in classical music is the piano concerto.
Now think back on this list of most famous composers you didn’t actually just make and reflect on how many of them wrote piano concertos: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg, Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and many, many others….
… and yes, Dvorak.
I would venture to bet, though, that of those most famous, iconic, identifiable, ubiquitous composers who wrote piano concertos, Dvorak’s sole piano concerto might be one of the least performed. (If we were making a list, Scriabin’s piano concerto would certainly be on it, too, but Scriabin is not nearly as ubiquitous and oft-played a composer as Dvorak is, but that’s not to say he shouldn’t be.) Tchaikovsky’s first (and even second, which I’ve heard a number of times live [and don’t forget the third!]) is played constantly, and I could live the rest of my life never hearing it again live or otherwise and die happy.
But Dvorak, writer of the famous American quartet (and quintet), one of the most epic cello concertos there is, the famous New World symphony… he has a neglected concerto? Well, depending on who you ask, yes.
As we have seen, Dvorak is a mighty fine symphonist, without even mentioning his superb symphonic poems, and I think there’s a point to be made there as we consider his piano concerto. With opus number 33, it comes around the time of the fifth symphony, and between the eighth and ninth string quartets. It was completed in 1876, the first of the three completed, published concertos that the composer would write (piano, violin, cello, in that order).
The work was written over a relatively short period of time, in August and September of 1876. The manuscript apparently shows many changes, but these apparently didn’t take place over any long period of revision, and were almost exclusively in the piano part, which we shall talk about shortly. The concerto was finally premiered on March 24, 1878 in Prague, the composer neither conductor nor pianist.
Decades after the pianist had written the piece, Czech pianist Vilém Kurz undertook revisions of the solo part, but the Wikipedia article on the concerto says little more than that. Kurz’s Wiki article says that the work suffered from negative feedback about the piano part for nearly a decade after its premiere, and that:
A common remark for many years was that the piano part was written “as if for two right hands.”
The article elaborates further, saying that Kurz undertook revisions to the solo part when he was in his twenties, around the 1890s, while Dvorak may have been in America, but the first performance of this version was not given until 1919. Interestingly, and satisfyingly, Kurz’s revisions affect none of Dvorak’s orchestral writing, so the performer can decide which version of the work to perform, Dvorak’s original, or Kurz’s now widely accepted revised solo part. Kurz’s student Rudolf Firkunsky became known for playing and recording his teacher’s revision, but turned to the original version in his later years.
Enough about that. But it does give us some useful information as we approach the listening part of the article. The two quotes at the top of the article, Dvorak’s own about the work, as well as Howard’s about its difficulty, tell us that maybe we should be expecting something different about this work, as Wiki says, “a symphonic concerto in which the piano plays a leading part in the orchestra, rather than opposed to it.”
This may call to mind the second piano concerto of Liszt, which we recently discussed, but this work is far more traditional than that piece. Dvorak’s concerto is very symphonic indeed, in three movements that follow the typical layout, with a meaty first movement, slow middle movement, and finale. It’s also a rather hefty work, coming in at close to 40 minutes, in contrast with Liszt’s of twenty-something.
So what should your expectations be going into this work? Well, despite the negative remarks about the piano part, at least in its original form, this is a breathtaking work. The composer’s last three symphonies (7-9) are generally regarded as his best, and this symphony, as we said, comes slightly earlier than those. Just listen to the introduction, the first two minutes or so before the piano begins. It’s masculine and chiseled, powerful and charismatic, but then at a turn, fragrant and delicate, and this basic material provides the foundation on which this entire 18-ish minute movement is based.
Will the average person notice anything about this piano part that makes it seem ‘ineffective’ or sub-par in any way? Likely not, since you’re more than likely listening to Kurz’s revised version, but even if you aren’t, I’d be surprised if a non-professional (or something) had any concrete criticisms to file against the piano part.
What you may certainly notice, though, is this ‘symphonic concerto’ idea. The interaction isn’t what so many piano concertos are. In the mind-numbing concertos of Chopin, say, the orchestra is nothing but a pretty backdrop, a curtain to fill out empty space, providing the stage on which the piano does its thing. In Beethoven’s fourth concerto from last week, we saw much more interesting interaction, but even in Chopin, or in Brahms’s first concerto, say, the piano leads the way, in Brahms sometimes more pugnaciously than elsewhere, but that interaction takes a number of forms, leader and follower, or adversaries, sometimes as coconspirators or friends, but here it’s different, somehow not really any of those. You could be critical of it and say that the result is one that lacks that dynamic, but the integration I find wonderful, and Dvorak’s content is really pretty sublime.
The first movement is really a breathtaking symphonic journey, where the piano sometimes is simply an equal partner in the action, in others, the definite leader, but there’s plenty here to please, especially if you’re fond of, y’know, the most straightforward, iconic Romantic-era sound, Dvorak’s late symphonies, even his cello concerto, which would come much later. It’s epic and grand and really just quite wonderful. At one point in the development, even, there’s a horn call that seems to prefigure a famous theme from the New World symphony. All in all, it’s just very satisfying, colorful music.
In keeping with symphonic and concertante traditions, the second movement, the shortest of the three, is a contrast to what comes before and after it, the slow movement. It is of simple beauty, an extension of the more tender moments we heard in the first movement, here more fully developed. There’s nothing terribly complicated or even outstandingly unique about it; it’s just very pretty. In its shimmering harmonies, washes of major vs. minor sounds, and broader, fluid landscape, you may hear something of Rachmaninoff in it. This softer spaciousness doesn’t mean it’s void of intensity or feeling, though, because there’s a poignant climax toward the end of the movement that feels like something really cataclysmic may be upon us. Instead, it cools off to a very quiet, ear-catching close before the third movement begins.
It sounds instantly troubled, a bit unsettling, but once the piano gives us the theme of this movement, we can breathe a little easier. It has a playful, if not mildly mischievous, and it may strike us as the most concerto-like movement, with statements from piano returned by the orchestra, even if the actual content of this movement doesn’t excite me as much as the first movement. I’d say there are solid similarities to Rachmaninoff here, or Brahms, but even then, it’s more German than Rachmaninoff, and less German than Brahms.
This is the most ‘middle’ of Dvorak that we’ve seen. We did a few of his early works, like the chamber pieces and an early symphony or two, and then late works, like the seventh and ninth symphonies, so here we find ourselves right in the middle, a composer who is undoubtedly very talented, versed in the traditions of the era, but still working on developing a more individual voice. Also maybe he just wasn’t suited to writing a piano concerto.
Ultimately, though, as I said, this work is very satisfying. There’s nothing about it that would strike the average listener as odd or terribly unfamiliar, but if you’re expecting a flashy, splashy, showy piano concerto, you might have to look elsewhere. And there is plenty of that elsewhere. What we have, intentionally or not, is a unique work, a symphonic concerto in a different way from Liszt or, say, Scriabin’s Poem of Fire (obviously). There’s a little more pianism in the finale, but…
I came to this work a few months ago in preparation for this article, almost entirely ignorant of the work, despite having heard it in concert once. It only took a few listens to come to appreciate its grandness, and the composer’s fast hold on the Romantic idiom. I’d hope that new discoverers of this work will give it a listen or two rather than be discouraged by some of the work’s negative press.
In closing, as a side point, one can’t write about this work without Harold C. Schonberg’s famous quote about Dvorak’s trifecta of concertos. He said Dvorak wrote:
an attractive Piano Concerto in G minor with a rather ineffective piano part, a beautiful Violin Concerto in A minor, and a supreme Cello Concerto in B minor…
We’ve seen the cello concerto, and now the piano concerto, which he does admit is attractive. I’d call that an understatement. If you ever wanted another Romantic-era concerto besides those most famous few from Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, or another Dvorak symphony or symphonic work, start here. But if that’s what you want, I’m sure you have already come to love this piece.
So that’s it for now, but there’s more delicious piano work on the way, so do stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading.