Movement 1: Maestoso
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Rondo: Allegro non troppo
Brahms’s approach is set in the opening pages of the Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15: massive and dramatic, its sound and its juxtaposition of D minor and B flat major echoing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The inspiration of this concerto was tragic and immediate. In September 1853 the twenty-year-old Brahms knocked on the door of Robert and Clara Schumann’s home in Düsseldorf and played them a few of his pieces. When he left, Schumann wrote in his journal: ‘Visit from Brahms (a genius).’ Soon after the Schumanns had met Brahms, Robert wrote an article called ‘New Paths’ in which he declared this unknown student not only a genius but the coming saviour of German music. From Robert’s article many thing flowed. Suddenly the whole of musical Europe knew the name Brahms. But Brahms understood all too well what Schumann had unintentionally done: thrown him up on a pedestal before he had proved himself.
As Brahms was contemplating that dilemma he received news of something far worse: Robert Schumann had jumped into the Rhine in a suicide attempt. Robert was pulled out of the river and placed in an asylum, where he died three years later. During that period Brahms and Clara fell in love (more or less unspoken), and he began to try and cope with the creative burden Robert had laid on him. It was during those years that he painfully and painstakingly composed the First Piano Concerto.
This composition appears to have been begun amid the nightmare of Schumann’s collapse. Within a week of Robert’s suicide attempt, Brahms had drafted three movements of a two-piano sonata in D minor. In the following months the sonata turned into a draft of a symphony that refused to take wing. Finally he began over again with just the first movement, refashioning it as a piano concerto. This movement was his first piece for orchestra and by far the most ambitious thing he had attempted. Immediately he found himself struggling with writing for orchestra and managing a gigantic, complex form. Yet he kept pounding away at the piece. After nearly five excruciating years, he finished the three movements of the D minor Piano Concerto in spring 1858.
What he created remains one of the longest, most powerful and most formidable of all concertos. It begins on a note of high drama, an ominous low D in the basses and snarling horns, with wild shivering trills above. That opening was the most turbulent in the repertoire at the time, with an expressive urgency that Brahms rarely attempted again and never surpassed. Surely the impetus for this work came from his youthful turmoil. If the vertiginous opening is applied to the image of a desperate man leaping into the water, it is almost cinematically apt.
After the searing opening pages, the monumental first movement unfolds in an atmosphere of high drama, yet still not in programmatic but in abstract terms, a version of the usual concerto first-movement form—exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. Through a welter of themes the pianist has to portray something like all the contending characters in a drama. This remains one of the longest of concerto movements, physically and mentally one of the most demanding on the soloist.
Brahms told Clara Schumann that the gentle and hymn-like slow movement was ‘a tender portrait’ of her. Much of it is unforgettably beautiful. Here, pictured in sound, is the Clara the young Brahms fell in love with and never stopped loving, even though he remained a bachelor to the end. Written in a simple ternary form (this and the finale have cadenzas), the second movement perhaps cost him less trouble than the first.
Then Brahms had to contend with the last movement. He decided on a traditional conclusion—a racing, rhythmically dynamic rondo: ABACABA. The last movements of Classical concertos were traditionally light, brilliant and vivacious rather than ponderous, and this one follows suit. Desperate to get the piece done, Brahms cribbed from the finale of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto No 3. ‘The two finales’, Charles Rosen wrote, ‘may be described and analysed to a great extent as if they were the same piece.’ The sound is Brahms, though, not Beethoven. The tone is a non-tragic D minor, youthful high spirits with a driving, demonic, Hungarian/gypsy cast. Whether in the end the finale resolves the questions and tensions raised in the first movement is a subject of long debate, but there is no question that it makes for a thrilling conclusion.
The premiere, with Brahms at the piano, was received politely but with quiet perplexity in Hanover. In its dark tone, its symphonic style and epic scale, this was a new kind of concerto. Then came the disastrous second performance in conservative Leipzig. At the end Brahms was hissed off the stage. In the wake of the Leipzig fiasco he broke off an engagement—the only one he ever had—with a young singer, and began to give up his hopes of being a true composer–pianist.
With the D minor Concerto Brahms began his orchestral career with a work that shared something of the scope and tone—and key—of the symphony that ended Beethoven’s orchestral career. The results were powerful and original, and Brahms knew it, but his inexperience left its mark on the piece and he knew that too. He vowed not to take on something of that size and ambition again until he knew he was ready; he would not feel ready for another eighteen years, when he finished the First Symphony. But by the 1870s, he had the satisfaction of hearing this impassioned product of his youth cheered in concert halls all over Europe.
from notes by Jan Swafford © 2013