Director : Bernard Haitink.
Rondo: Allegro non troppo (D minor → D major)
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.
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