Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

by Max Derrickson

Johannes Brahms   (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; Vienna, 3 April 1897)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
1. Maestoso
2. Adagio
3. Rondo, Allegro non troppo
Though painstaking revisions were routine for all of Brahms’ compositions, he tormented over his First Piano Concerto.  The beginnings of some of its thematic material emerged some 12 years before the Concerto’s completion.  The main work on it spanned three years, beginning first as a symphony, changing into a sonata for two pianos, then finally into the Piano Concerto.  Even when it became a sure concerto, it went through several hefty revisions before its premiere.  But it’s no wonder why it was so deeply meaningful to Brahms.  His immense reverence for Beethoven’s symphonies seemed to overshadow and stultify the young Brahms’ courage for such large works – Beethoven had set the bar too high for emulation – and yet, the world was waiting very impatiently for Brahms to do just that.

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From the very opening of the piece, the Beethovian weight upon Brahms’ shoulders is palpable, and it is indeed a massive utterance: angry and exclamatory strings and winds nearly hack the first theme out of their instruments while battling with thundering blasts from the timpani and basses.  It is as raw a pathos as Brahms would ever create.  Shortly, however, the tone settles down into that of an epic tale – hushed, but grand.  When the piano finally emerges, it takes up the themes in a curiously uncommitted way, throwing off the gravity of the mood.  Yet throughout the whole first movement, the ponderousness of the first theme is carried forth while grappling against more somber, at times sweeter, expressions; [. . .]

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The exhilarating third movement Rondo is even more contrasting.  To begin with, we get an ear-full of piano virtuosity stating a gypsy-like, free spirited theme.  The shadowy mood has lifted and the energy has changed toward the positive.  Brahms also seems to have great fun crafting the themes in and out of each other, even creating a wonderful little fugue.  There still remains some certain angst, however, most noticeable in the piano’s first cadenza – and this is what makes the casting-off of all that angst as the Rondo builds up into its joyful finale all the more brillian