chopin – piano concerto no. 1

The title “Piano Concerto No. 1” is famously a misnomer in this case, as the Piano Concerto in E minor is actually the second in order of composition of the two concerti Chopin wrote for himself in 1829-30. It was the first to be published, however, and by a fairly wide margin; so the Piano Concerto in E minor is given the designation Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 11, followed by the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21.

Chopin in 1829, when he began the first of the two concerti.

Nearly all of Chopin’s music was for piano alone. The two concerti, along with a handful of other somewhat less ambitious works from his youth, comprise the whole of his concertante output for soloist with orchestra. These works Chopin wrote as virtuosic vehicles for his own use in establishing himself as a pianist and composer—for in that time, the boundary between concert pianist and composer was still blurry, and pianists generally performed mostly or exclusively their own compositions. Indeed, Chopin gave the premiere performances of both of these works in Warsaw during the year 1830. He was only twenty years old.

The concerti show a remarkable grasp of large scale formal conventions, particularly for a young composer who would come into his own entirely through smaller, more intimate pieces. They also evidence his proclivity for exotic harmonies and modulations and for highly pianistic figurations of a new order. The E minor concerto, in particular, remains one of the most accessible and widely-performed concerti in the Romantic repertoire. It is dedicated to Friedrich Kalkbrenner, one of the great virtuoso pianists of the day. Chopin would later study with him in Paris, although there can be little doubt that the young Pole already exceeded his teacher in artistry and finesse if not in pyrotechnic ability.

Chopin’s ability as an orchestrator—or lack thereof—is sometimes fiercely debated. Some find his use of the orchestra dull and too subservient to the role of the soloist. There is some truth to these charges, but it must be remembered that such a configuration was quite common in the works of early Romantic virtuosi and is not particular to Chopin. Chopin did not display anything approaching the colorful orchestral palette of a Tchaikovsky or the titanic architectural skill of a Beethoven or Brahms, to be sure; but closer inspection reveals that his orchestral arrangements are tastefully and skillfully wrought and display a good deal of imagination and interest. Though his orchestral output is very small, his reputation as the poorest orchestrator among the major composers seems to me to be ill-deserved.

The E minor concerto is in the standard three movements: an opening allegro with a stately, polonaise-like first theme and a gentle cantilena of a second theme in the parallel major; a charming largo Romance as the second movement; and a rousing rondo finale which develops certain characteristics of the krakowiak, a Polish folk dance.

Here Martha Argerich performs the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor with a Japanese orchestra, from a concert in 1996. As usual, her tempi are brisk and her artistry dazzling. The first and longest movement is split between the first two videos.

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