Ernst von Dohnányi: Piano Concerto No.1


As well as being a great pianist and conductor, Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) is most fondly remembered for being a composer. He composed a number of works that were largely popular during his time, although most but his chamber works seem to be performed regularly today. His highly Romantic and Brahms-inspired First Piano Concerto was composed in 1887, and was dedicated to Dohnányi’s piano tutor, d’Albert. Although composed in 1887, the concerto was not actually premiered until 1899. This staggering concerto was highly celebrated when premiered, and became one of Dohnányi’s leading works. However, for some reason unbeknownst to most, it is seldom performed today. Throughout his whole career, Dohnányi was always compared to his contemporaries, and often hounded for not being “original enough”. His style is often likened to that of Brahms, Liszt and Bruckner. 


The Music
Movement I – Adagio maestoso – Allegro

The opening movement starts with a slow introduction, which, in effect, presents the main theme by working in three piano cadenza between the dramatic orchestral swells. The opening chords, strongly sat in the key of E minor, are dramatic and tragic in character, which gives you that Brahmsian feel to the music (See Brahms Symphony No.1). The bold piano cadenza are dramatic and certainly make the statement that Dohnányi required. Between each cadenza the intensity only flares more, which creates such a tumultuous, but totally gripping opening. 

Once the ‘Allegro’ begins, Dohnányi’s more subdued style takes hold, and the movement begins to develop the themes through intricate interplay between the soloist and orchestra. Dohnányi’s writing for the piano carries the whole concerto, with the part being highly virtuosic and demanding the attention from both the orchestra and the audience. The boldness of Dohnányi’s orchestral writing plays against the powerful piano part, and the two together creates a truly mesmerising opening movement. After a short recapitulation of previous themes, the opening movement concludes with a romantically-styled violin solo that intertwines with the piano, as the rest of the orchestra begin to fade away. The piano plays a sequence of chords that signals the final chords of the movement. 


Movement II – Andante

The shortest of the three movements, the slow second movement has been likened to the style of Bruckner. The mysterious horn-lead opening starts off the chorale theme of the movement that is carried throughout. Highly rhapsodic in style, the piano part is rich in tone and broad in style. Dohnányi’s use of the very low end of the piano adds to the richness of this part, which ripples throughout the orchestra as the piano plays its first unaccompanied section. Call and response figures feature a lot in this movement, especially between the soloist and orchestra. This cements that high level of musical communication between the musicians perfectly. This rich movement is developed and handled with style and grace by Dohnányi. It concludes, similarly to the opening movement, quietly, gently and with dignity.


Movement III – Vivace

Full of energy, the final movement starts with a bold first theme led by the violins. As the melody washes through the orchestra, the piano enters at the pinch point, creating drama and intensity within the music. The theme is playful, but masterfully constructed so it sounds effortless. After a series of sections that develop the main three themes of this movement, the music heads towards a powerful cadenza for the piano. Dohnányi uses the full width of the piano and the technical demands of the cadenza merely represent just how intense of a workout this is for any virtuosic soloist. As the orchestra re-enter, the ‘Vivace’ marking really kicks into gear. The fast scalic passages played on the piano go against the broad interruptions by the orchestra. As the coda begins to play out, Dohnányi brings the full forces of the orchestra into play. Unlike the previous two movements, the finale concludes dramatically as the soloist and orchestra play alternating chords before landing on the root chord together.


Final Thoughts

Ernst von Dohnányi’s First Piano Concerto was a mark of what was to come. He composed a second concerto much later in 1947, but it is certainly the first that really left its imprint in musical history.


Ⓒ Alex Burns 

Happy Reading!

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