Posts Tagged ‘piano


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. Continue reading ‘chopin – piano concerto no. 1’


brahms in the autumn of his year

Johannes Brahms (1833-97) is, for me, a silvan composer—his music reminds me of a great rambling wood. We can rather clearly see the succession of the seasons in his work: from the fiercely beautiful, compelling springtime of early efforts like the piano sonatas and ballades, the first sets of songs, and chamber works such the first string sextet and the piano quartets, to the bursting summer of his symphonies, mature lieder, and Ein deutsches Requiem; and then there is the august and demure autumn of Brahms’ year, in which he composed chamber works, piano music, and a few last songs, all of an intense intimacy which represent to me the best that the Romantic period has to offer.

The particular works I have in mind are the trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op. 114; the clarinet quintet, Op. 115; the final collections of character pieces for the piano, Opp. 116-119; the two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op. 120, which to my mind are still the finest music written for that combination; and of course the Four Serious Songs of Op. 121 and the chorale preludes for organ of Op. 122. After these, Brahms was no more. In all this music we hear the life force waning, represented by long, sinuous melodic phrases and a preoccupation with harmonic progression by descending fifth. Brahms’ late interest in the clarinet came  from his association with Mühlfeld, a clarinetist from the orchestra at Meiningen whose playing inspired the master to continue composing during a period of creative vexation.

I believe it is in the Four Pieces for piano of Op. 119 (1893) that we can most directly experience this heaving forth of a great many leaves onto the musical landscape. We sense Brahms’ prescience of his own impending demise, but not through any sense of panic or terror in his voice, because there is none. Maybe there is some regret, some longing to revisit the springtime of youth once again, but we can find no internal disarray in this music. It reminds me of Bilbo Baggins at Rivendell, continually dozing by the fire as he looks over the journals of his great adventures while the younger generation prepares to quest on.  There is no rage against the dying of the light—only placid enjoyment of its last warmth and, one feels, some pleasure in solitary respite at the end of a full life.

Continue reading ‘brahms in the autumn of his year’


gulda plays bach – air from ouverture 3

Friedrich Gulda (1930 – 2000) was an Austrian classical and jazz pianist and composer. In his youth he studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and won the Geneva International Piano Competition. He was thoroughly admired for his Beethoven, but became something of an enfant terrible in the 1950s through extensive forays into jazz and his vocal irreverence for the classical musical “establishment” in Europe. Perhaps his most famous piano student was the great virtuoso (and fellow black sheep) Martha Argerich.

This video is from a 1982 collaboration with American jazz pianist Chick Corea; apparently, Gulda decided to cleanse the palate between jam sessions with a little Bach, and the result is spellbinding.
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