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Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major, S124
1830s/1849/1853/1856; first performed in Weimar on 17 February 1855 by the composer, with Berlioz conducting

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Movement 1: Allegro maestoso: Tempo giusto
Movement 2: Quasi adagio
Movement 3: Allegretto vivace
Movement 4: Allegro marziale animato

Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major, S124
There are at least six complete drafts of the Concerto No 1 in E flat major, in its various stages of revision, some of which bear the revealing title Concerto symphonique, indicating Liszt’s intention not to write a great deal of prominent note-spinning for the soloist over rather a perfunctory accompaniment—a state of affairs all too prevalent in the nineteenth-century concerto. (This projected title harks back to the Grande Fantaisie symphonique of 1834—the Lélio Fantasy—but also to the titles of the concertante works of Henry Litolff, whom Liszt greatly admired and to whom Concerto No 1 is dedicated.) As so often with Liszt, the idea behind the piece remains constant throughout its gestation, but much refinement of orchestration, tightening of structure and thinning of the texture of the solo part intervenes before the piece was ready in Liszt’s eyes for publication. The final version of the First Concerto is so well known that it requires a moment’s thought to consider exactly how original a piece it really is: the interchange of musical material between its four concise parts—which still have vestigial connections to the four-movement structure of a symphony; the solid binding of the cadenzas—all very short—into the absolute essence of the musical substance; the flexibility of the modulations—principally brought about by the shape of the opening orchestral phrase which sets up the possibility of Liszt’s favoured mediant progressions; and the writing for the orchestra; the important appearances of the trombones and the triangle; the use of timpani to reinforce the opening rhythm even when the actual melodic line is not being employed; the use of quiet dialogue between the piano and clarinet or violin—all these make the piece a standard-bearer for new thinking. And yet, connections with tradition remain, for example with another E flat major concerto very dear to Liszt, and part of his repertoire even into his last years: Beethoven’s Concerto No 5. Not only do these works share the principal tonality, but they both have a slow movement in the seemingly remote key of B major, and Beethoven’s anticipation of the rondo theme in his slow movement is one of the wellsprings of the whole technique of development by transformation of themes which informs so much of Liszt’s work. (It is interesting to note that the published two-piano version of this Concerto, S650, and that of the Second Concerto, S651, differ in minor matters from the final versions of the full scores, which were issued later and whose texts supersede those in the reductions.)

The first part of the Concerto begins with the famous motif to which Liszt is alleged to have privately appended the words: „Das versteht Ihr alle nicht“ (‘This none of you understands’), answered by the equally famous octave leaps from the piano. This exchange is followed by a short cadenza in C major whose opening is also structurally relevant. Two further exchanges present the opening motif with an accompaniment of repeated chords, and the piano’s answer and arpeggio leading into a lyrical phrase. This is taken up by the clarinet and produces the transition to the second subject proper—a falling phrase in C minor. The development immediately combines the clarinet phrase with the first motif, and leads to a tutti on the first theme and a piano/orchestra combination of that motif in descending chromatic octaves against a version of the clarinet arpeggio. The recapitulation is much truncated—it begins with the piano cadenza now in F sharp major, and the second subject does not return—and the coda again combines the two motifs, ending enharmonically in D sharp major, making the move to B major for the second part look less unusual.

The theme of the miniature slow movement has two main phrases, one rising, one falling, which are developed separately. The second generates the central recitative which yields to a new theme from the flute over the piano trill, and the first theme returns briefly to effect the transition to the scherzo in E flat minor, whose motifs derive from the second subject of the first movement and the second phrase of the theme of the slow movement. After the scherzo, a brief cadenza reintroduces material from the first movement, adding the flute theme from the slow movement, all designed to introduce the finale. This march returns us to E flat major, and it is based on the first phrase of the slow movement alternating with a version of the second subject of the first movement. The recitative of the second movement is then recalled in an exchange between bassoons, trombones and lower strings and the piano, and the music moves to B major for a second theme—derived from the slow movement flute melody. After a variation on the march theme, a new theme appears—a transformation of the scherzo—in E minor, but leading to a variation in E flat major, and thence to the coda, which is largely and ingeniously transformed from first movement material.

from notes by Leslie Howard © 1998

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Details for CDA67401/2 disc 1 track 1
Allegro maestoso: Tempo giusto
Recording date
1 July 1998
Recording venue
Budapest Studios of Hungarian Radio, Hungary
Recording producer
Tryggvi Tryggvason
Recording engineer
Tryggvi Tryggvason
Hyperion usage
  1. Liszt: Complete Piano Music (CDS44501/98)
    Disc 95 Track 1
    Release date: February 2011
    99CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
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