Movement 1: Vivace
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Allegro vivace
The first documented mention of the Concerto seems to be on 26 March 1891, in a letter to another of his numerous cousins, and its completion followed on 6 July, after a month of near-solitude at Ivanovka. Rachmaninov compensated for his ongoing lassitude, or so he claimed, by composing the second and third movements in a two-and-a-half day burst, working from five o’clock in the morning until eight in the evening. The score carried a dedication to Ziloti.
Rachmaninov performed the first movement at a student concert on 17 March 1892, in the Small Room of the Hall of Nobility. On that occasion the student orchestra was conducted by Vasily Safonov – by then Director of the Conservatoire – who was used to making corrections and cuts in his students’ work. This time, however, Safonov found himself bowing to the will of the fledgling composer. It is not entirely clear when, or even if, Rachmaninov played the work in its entirety (though others certainly did so) before he shelved it for revision. It was to be September 1917 before he finally got round to that task. Rachmaninov set the finishing date to the revised score on 10 November, just weeks after the storming of the Winter Palace and the enthronement of the Bolshevik regime, whose baleful effects he would flee six weeks later (though he had been laying plans even before the October Revolution), never to return to Russia. He first performed the new work on 29 January 1919 in New York with the Russian Symphony Society Orchestra, conducted by Modest Altschuler.
Rachmaninov was an inveterate rewriter. But he took the red pen to his First Piano Concerto more radically than to any other of his works (the case of the Fourth Concerto runs it close). The central tutti of the first movement and the first half of the cadenza were newly composed, and the finale was just as extensively recast. Among the excised material was much that openly declared a debt to Grieg’s Piano Concerto.
That model can still be detected behind the opening orchestral fanfare and pianistic flourishes. This is an amplified version of Grieg’s straightforward tonics and dominants, Nordic candour traded in for Slavonic melodrama. The orchestra then launches into one of Rachmaninov’s signature swooning lyrical themes, immediately picked up by the piano. Still shadowing the Grieg Concerto, the piano continues with darting figurations, before giving way to another orchestral song-theme. The largely sequentially constructed development section with rhapsodic breaks, the piano-led reprise, and the hypertrophic cadenza all fall into the pattern established by Grieg. But the devil is in the detail, and especially in its revised version this movement asserts its individuality by means of its ecstatic waywardness.
One of Grieg’s closing slow movement ideas supplies Rachmaninov with the opening of his comparatively modest Andante. This is marked by the piano’s improvisatory dreaminess, the quintessence of Romantic rhapsody: healing, as it were, all past longings and allowing the hero of the Concerto – the music’s personality, mediated by the soloist, with which we are invited to identify – to shake off the fetters of the past. Rachmaninov’s instinct for decorative passagework and for inspired harmonic deflections and balancing returns shines through. Now only the final cadences remind us of the music’s Griegian paternity.
Concerto finales are by tradition brilliant, physically exhilarating affairs, which is one reason why the symphonic scherzo is usually dispensable. This finale is no different. But perhaps compensating for the fact that the opening ideas are flashy and rather empty, it is the lyrical second subject that brings the movement into focus. Once again it is Rachmaninov’s genius for variation and renewal that keeps the structure alive, rather than any deeper-lying compositional strategies. And by 1917, when he was putting the Concerto into its definitive shape, he was unrivalled in his ability to ratchet up audience excitement over the last pages.
from notes by David Fanning © 2004