Rubinstein – Brahms, Piano Concerto No.1 – I Maestoso (2/3)


Director : Bernard Haitink.
Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam.

Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor (Op. 15) is one of Brahms’ most famous and frequently performed pieces. A concerto on nearly every major pianist’s repertoire, it presents considerable technical challenges to the performer.

Brahms worked on the composition for some years, as was the case with many of his works. After a prolonged gestation period, it was first performed on January 22, 1859, in Hanover, Germany, when Brahms was just 25 years old. Five days later, at Leipzig, an unenthusiastic audience hissed at the concerto, while critics savaged it, labelling it “perfectly unorthodox, banal and horrid”. In a letter to his close personal friend, the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms stated, “I am only experimenting and feeling my way”, adding sadly, “all the same, the hissing was rather too much!”

Brahms originally conceived the work as a sonata for two pianos. Seeking a grander and fuller sound, Brahms later orchestrated the work in an attempt to transform it into a four-movement symphony. However, he also found that unsatisfactory. Brahms ultimately decided that he had not sufficiently mastered the nuances of orchestral color to sustain a symphony, and instead relied on his skills as a pianist and composer for the piano to complete the work as a concerto. Brahms only retained the original material from the work’s first movement; the remaining movements were discarded and two new ones were composed, yielding a work in the more usual three-movement concerto structure.

Brahms’ biographers often note that the first sketches for the dramatic opening movement followed quickly on the heels of the 1854 suicide attempt of the composer’s dear friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, an event which caused great anguish for Brahms. He finally completed the concerto two years after Schumann’s death in 1856, by which time his love for Schumann’s widow, Clara Schumann, had fully blossomed.

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.

The work reflects Brahms’ effort to combine the piano with the orchestra as equal partners, unlike earlier classical concertos, where the orchestra effectively accompanied the pianist. Even for the young Brahms, the concerto-as-showpiece had little appeal. Instead, he enlisted both orchestra and soloist in the service of the musical ideas; 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, but also reflects the concerto’s symphonic origins and ambitions. His effort drew on both chamber music techniques and the pre-classical Baroque concerto grosso, an approach that later was fully realized in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. This first concerto also demonstrates Brahms’ particular interest in scoring for the timpani and the French horn, both of whose parts are notoriously difficult.

Although a work of Brahms’ youth, this concerto is a mature work that points forward to his later concertos and his First Symphony. Most notable are its scale and grandeur, as well as the thrilling technical difficulties it presents. As time passed, the work grew in popularity until it was recognized as a masterpiece.

First movement

Maestoso (mainly in D minor)

The first movement is in sonata form, divided into four sections: exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. The mighty introduction, inspired by the opening movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and incorporating the same menacing clash of D minor and B-flat major, is one of the most monumental of any piano concerto. A short mysterious section follows and soon builds up to mighty fanfare, followed by another decrescendo and the entry of the piano. The fanfare builds itself up again as the entire piece of music comes crashing down. The development then opens up with a short motif, which is repeated again in the later part of the concerto. Towards the end, the introductory theme springs up again, played by the piano, after which the orchestra combines with the piano to give a tragic if majestic conclusion in tonic minor chords.


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  1. The best Brahms 1 concerto players 1.Gilels with Jochum with Berliner Phil.2.Radu Lupu 3.Rubinstein 4.Witold Malcuzynski 5.Gelber 6.Katchen All these have the colors with their piano sound and tone.All the rest Kissin Ax Serkin Backhaus Arrau Barenboim and so on plays Brahms 1 an anti romantic fashion with a sticky a stiffy an ice cold tone

  2. Good question. One should always be skeptical. But, just watch and listen to Rubinstein in these vids. Watch his technique, and listen to his cleanness. But, then not every body is pleased with things that please some people. I hope this answers your question to some extent!

  3. I cant remember when this amazing concerto was performed with less pulling and pushing between pianist and orch. Love the phrasing in this performance. Tempo was never an issue for me in this performance. The best overall performance for Brahms 1st that I have heard.

  4. @jewish1972 … Was it Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?… mesmerizing… I have a tendency to stick to the french impressionists, but this concerto is a bliss. Thanks for sharing

  5. @jewish1972 … Was it Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?… mesmerizing… I have a tendency to stick to the french impressionists, but this concerto is a bliss. Thanks for sharing

  6. @Tiszt

    I saw him play in his last concert in LA on November 8,1975, with the LA Phil, and he was still a very young man at 88. His wrists could only have come from God.

  7. Joachim (Brahms friend) was R's mentor (paid 4 music lessons) with Prof H Barth. (Kempff was also a pupil of Barth -how different they are!) R grew up with people who know Brahms and how to play his music! it's the way he sounds so natural….Barenboim has said that when listened to R, even though he himself played the piece differently R's way somehow seems right at the time -the secret seems to be that R looks at the long line of the music his is total view always moving forward. .

  8. what seems to be lost in a number of modern performers is musicality. the performances are technically brilliant but a great part of music is can it touch your emotions, make you feel something other than wonder at how fast a person can play. Artur Rubinstein is never crass at the piano and still has marvelous technique. His peers thought he was a consummate musician and did his legion of fans.

  9. Look at his elderly chiseled face, hardly breaking out in a sweat on the octaves, carefully avoiding using too much damper pedal to "cheat."

    And he's almost 90!

    Unrushed and lyrical….


  10. I think Rubinstein had the best overall grasp of this music and definitely the poetic lyrical qualities required. There is such a marvelous balance but also contrasts within an orchestral overview.


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