Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor Op. 15 (1858)
Johannes Brahms (1833-97)
- Rondo: Allegro
Born in Hamburg into a poor family, the teenage Brahms supported his family through piano-playing in dance halls, teaching and conducting choirs, until the virtuoso violinist Eduard Reményi adopted Brahms as his accompanist. He also introduced Brahms to the violinist Josef Joachim, 14 years his senior, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. In 1853 Joachim introduced the 20-year-old Brahms to the composer Robert Schumann and his pianist wife Clara. The influential Robert hailed Brahms as a budding genius, graciously welcoming him into their household. Brahms became devoted to Clara, and when in 1854 Robert was committed to an asylum after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Brahms rushed to comfort Clara with her seven children, and to visit Robert until he died two years later. It was out of this turbulent emotional environment that the first piano concerto evolved.
When Brahms met Schumann, he only had a few chamber and piano solo compositions to show him. Encouraged by Schumann, Brahms drafted three movements of a symphony, with which, as usual, he was dissatisfied. In 1854 he heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, further fuelling his symphonic ambitions. About this time Brahms also drafted a big sonata for two pianos, which he played with Clara after Robert’s hospitalisation. Two years after Robert’s death, these earlier efforts eventually coalesced as the first piano concerto, completed in 1858.
The concerto’s revolutionary first movement puts lie to the conventional view of Brahms as a conservative traditionalist. Unlike the more conventional virtuoso concerto where the orchestra acts as a mere accompanist, here there is a more equal partnership. Together with its dramatic language, this accounted for the work’s poor reception, particularly in Leipzig where it was hissed, much to the chagrin of Brahms, who was also the soloist.
Before the piano enters with a strangely wistful waltz-like theme, a fiercely dramatic lengthy orchestral introduction presents a group of subjects that Brahms skilfully reworks throughout the movement, as he bends and stretches the conventions of sonata form to the limit. The reverential second movement (captioned in the score: “Blessed, who comes in the name of the Lord”) has been seen as a homage to the Schumanns and particularly to Clara. The rumbustious but intense finale includes two cadenzas from which bright sunlight eventually emerges.
Performed: March 2016