Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.1


Composed initially in 1891 when he was just 18 years old, Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto was heavily revised in 1917. After abandoning sketches of a concerto in C minor, Rachmaninov pursued the sketches of what we know to be the First Piano Concerto. The first movement of this original version was premiered at the Moscow Conservatory, which may have been the only time that Rachmaninov performed the solo as it was in this form. 

After the premieres of Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, the composer revisited the First in 1917. The concerto was re-imagined and the changes Rachmaninov made were illuminating as it showed the composer’s musical progression over a number of years. Rachmaninov focused on editing harmony and orchestrations to make a once youthful attempt at a concerto into a fully-realised piece of music. Rachmaninov said this of his rewritten concerto:


“I have rewritten my First Concerto; it is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily. And nobody pays any attention. When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third.”


The First Piano Concerto we have now is the revised version, with the original 1891 version rarely ever performed now. Although his Second and Third concertos are immensely popular, the First rightly sits at the core of Rachmaninov’s output and serves as a reminder of the composer’s development. 


The Music
Movement I – Vivace

After a short brass fanfare, the bold piano states its claim on the concerto. One can see just from this opening that one of Rachmaninov’s main inspirations came from Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A. The use of double octaves creates drama and intensity before the strings begin a lyrical counter theme. One of the big changes Rachamaninov made in this movement is seen through the arc of the music. The opening flourish returns again later in the movement, which creates symmetry within the music. 

Rachmaninov’s lyrical writing paired with the rich textures between the strings and the piano is quintessential Romantic writing. The devilishly difficult quick passages on the piano fly through the orchestral interjections. The dichotomy between the more lyrical passages and the quick scalic sections creates light and shade within the music. As the main theme is developed through the course of this movement, Rachmaninov experiments with the textures within the orchestra. Another revision the composer made throughout the concerto is the general thinning of textures to make room for the soloist. The highly virtuosic sections pop a lot more in the texture after this amendment. 

The music heads towards a powerful cadenza for the soloist. The big chords paired with the loud dynamics creates quite the showcasing of the piano. After the elongated cadenza, the orchestra returns for the last 30 seconds of the piece. A quick flourish of themes fill the atmosphere, before the movement ends with a sudden tutti chord.


Movement II – Andante

The relatively short second movement is set as a nocturne. Rachmaninov made the least revisions to this movement, only really experimenting with the textures. Standing at only 74 bars, the lyrical second movement opens with an orchestral interlude. Once the piano enters the orchestra dies away so that the soloist can present their variation of the delicate theme. Rachmaninov uses the woodwind and horns in this movement to decorate the melody, with the strings taking a much more accompaniment role here. Relatively quiet throughout, nuanced orchestral swells add intensity to the music as the piano leads the movement to its quiet end. 


Movement III – Allegro Scherzando

The once weak opening was turned into a loud and brassy opening that saw another big flourish open the finale movement. Throughout this movement Rachmaninov moves the music between 9/8 and 12/8 time to create nuanced differences within the melodies. The incredibly quick piano part runs chaotically through the orchestra as the foundations are laid by the orchestra. The piano part throughout the concerto is virtuosic, but perhaps the most so in this finale. 

A maestoso central section sees a big key change into Eb major as the more lyrical melody is played out. Similar in style to the opening movement, the finale puts the emphasis on the quick movement of the piano and the highly Romantic stylings of the orchestra. Big on drama, Rachmaninov uses the sonata-rondo structure to his advantage by getting the most out of the finale material. After a short piano interlude the orchestra and soloist rush towards the end of the concerto, with the brass also leading in the climaxes. The galloping theme unites the orchestra and soloist towards the finale thrilling chord. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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