Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano, Op. 11 (1830) – Third movement
World Premiere: 10/11/1830, Warsaw, the composer as piano soloist
This concerto is actually the second of two he wrote but was published before his actual first concerto (in F minor, Op. 21). This was due to a delay in the orchestral parts of the F-minor concerto. (Chopin never was fully comfortable with any instrument outside of the piano.) He premiered the E-minor concerto on his final Warsaw concert before leaving the Polish capital (and Poland) forever. The reason for his departure: Polish audiences were bored with Chopin, who was “passé” at the ripe old age of 20! So he decided to try his luck abroad, where he found a wonderful haven in Paris. He always wanted to return to his native Poland, but tuberculosis cut short his life. The worsening political situation in Poland didn’t help matters, either.
The E-minor is dedicated to Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), composer-pianist-teacher whose vanity (many anecdotes about that) outshone his musical and business talents (both of which he had in abundance). Chopin made arrangements of this concerto for piano solo, piano duo, quartet for piano and strings, and quintet for piano and strings.
The Rondo finale, marked Vivace, is most Polish, permeated throughout with the Krakowiak>, a fast, syncopated Polish dance in duple meter said to have originated in and around Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city. Chopin most certainly loved this dance, as he previously (1828) wrote an entire piece, also for piano and orchestra, using this dance: the Rondo á la Krakowiak:Grand Rondeau de Concert in F Major, Op. 14. Even so, this movement proved the most difficult for Chopin to complete, as it was one of the last pieces he wrote in Poland.
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Concerto in E Minor for Cello, Op. 85 (1918-1919) – Fourth movement
World Premiere: 10/27/1919, London Queen’s Hall, Felix Salmond (1888-1952), cello soloist,
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the composer cond.
The last major work by Elgar, the Cello Concerto was offered when he was already considered passé by the public. (Anyone detect a pattern here?) Under such circumstances, a lack of adequate rehearsal time ensured a disastrous premiere. For a long time thereafter, the concerto did not connect with the public – despite two early recordings made under Elgar’s direction – until 1965, when Jacqueline du Pre made a recording for Angel Records (EMI) that became iconic. Since then, it has become one of the most played cello concertos (alongside Dvorak, Schumann, Haydn’s two and Shostakovitch’s two).
Lyrical and elegiac, Elgar’s Cello Concerto first came to him while he was recuperating from tonsillectomy (risky for a 61-year-old like Elgar). He awoke after being sedated, asked for a pencil and paper, and wrote down the main theme of the first movement (1918). He then put it aside for a year before taking it up again and completing it.
In four movements (unconventional for a concerto, as there are usually three), the concerto reveals a changing style for Elgar — one more despairing and full of angst and disillusionment, deeply colored by what he experienced of World War I as a citizen, viewing death and mortality in a more introspective manner. The finale (begins Allegro, ma non troppo, ends Allegro molto, a series of other tempos in between) maintains this turbulent spirit and ends in the original minor key rather than the more typical parallel major. And throughout it all, the solo cello reigns supreme.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): Concerto in A Minor for Piano, Op 16 (1868; rev at least seven times thereafter) – First movement
World Premiere: 4/3/1869, Copenhagen Casino Concert Hall, Edmund Neupert (1842-1888), piano soloist, Royal Danish Orchestra, Holger Simon Paulii (1810-1891), cond.
Never has a concerto’s influence been so obvious as Robert Schumann’s one and only Piano Concerto has been on Grieg’s one and only. Both are in A minor, both have the same overall style, both begin with an orchestral chord leading to the solo piano, starting high, cascading downward with a flourish. Grieg heard Schumann’s concerto played by wife Clara Schumann in Leipzig in 1858, and Grieg’s piano teacher, Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, was Schumann’s friend.
Neupert not only premiered this concerto, he was the dedicatee of the second edition and is said to have written the cadenza of the first movement. Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866), a fellow composer who died of TB at the age of 23 and who wrote the Norwegian national anthem, received the original dedication; it was he who inspired Grieg to write in a more nationalistic vein. The piano Neupert played at the premiere was loaned by Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), the great Russian composer-pianist-conductor and founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, who attended the premiere. Grieg did not, due to commitments in Norway, else it might have been he who would have been the soloist.
This concerto has proven to be one of the most popular of all time, right up there with No.1 of Tchaikovsky and No. 2 of Rachmaninov. The first piano concerto ever recorded (1909), although greatly truncated (six minutes of its approximately 30+ minutes left intact), it has been used in films (1939’s Intermezzo), cartoons, Broadway (“Rosemary,” in 1961’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying), TV shows (1980s version of Beauty and the Beast) and commercials (Nike, 2004), video games, etc. It forms a substantial part of Song of Norway, Wright and Forrest’s 1944 pastiche operetta that’s largely a fictional biography of Grieg. The composer left incomplete a piano-duo version of this concerto (completed in 1876 by Karoly Thern) and a second piano concerto (1882-1883, completed in 2003 by Laurent Beeckmans).
Grieg constructs the first movement (Allegro molto moderato – Più lento – Poco più allegro) along the simplest means: after the lengthy exposition, he skips any pretense at a development section by merely repeating the exposition again in its entirety (minus the opening flourish) for an easy
recapitulation. But it is that opening “signature” that is responsible for the work’s lasting appeal: a solo timpani roll signaling the dramatic entrance (flourish) of the soloist. That flourish, which returns to close the movement, contains Norwegian folk-song elements, making Grieg’s music sound nationalistic indeed.
Edouard Lalo (1823-1892): Symphonie espagnole, Op 21 (1874) – Fifth movement
World Premiere: 2/7/1875, Paris, Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), violin soloist and dedicatee.
Lalo’s Spanish Symphony is, in fact, his Concerto No. 2 in D Minor for Violin, despite the title and the fact it is in five movements instead of, for a oncerto, the customary three. It was published right after his “officially one-and-only” Violin Concerto (No. 1) in F Major, Op. 20 (written 1873). Plus, there is an unoffical Violin Concerto No. 3: his Fantaisie norvegienne (Norwegian Fantasy) of 1878. Symphonie espagnole, written expressly for Sarasate, a composer in his own right, greatly inspired Tchaikovsky to write his own violin concerto (in D Major, Op. 35; 1878) while he was ecuperating from a suicide attempt brought on by his disastrous marriage. This “concerto” and the Cello Concerto in D Minor (1876) are Lalo’s two most popular works.
Although a violin concerto, it is not ill-named, as it contains an abundance of Spanish motifs. (“All things Spanish” was the rage in France in those days – Bizet’s Carmen was to premiere a month after Symphonie espagnole — and Lalo was of Spanish descent.)
The fifth movement, Rondo (Allegro – Poco più lento – Tempo I) , in the parallel D-major mode, is a gigue (typical 6/8 rhythm) that drives the music, espite occasional intrusions of reminders of the previous movements (not played here), to a blazing conclusion.
Pyotr Il’ich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Variations on a Rococo Theme in A Major for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 (1876-1877)
World Premiere: 11/30/1877, Moscow, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (1848-1890), cello soloist and dedicatee, Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1881), cond.
The closest Tchaikovsky ever came to writing a cello concerto, the Rococo Variations is not based on a Rococo theme but on an original theme in the Rococo style, modeled on Mozart, whom he greatly admired. (His 1887 Suite No. 4, Op. 61, is subtitled “Mozartiana.”) He wrote the Rococo Variations for Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a German cellist and fellow professor at the Moscow Conservatory (where Tchaikovsky was professor of music theory), who also helped with the technical demands of his instrument. In fact, after the world premiere, it was the “Fitzenhagen edition” that became standard for this work, although since the 1940s there has been a harkening back to the original (i.e., without Fitzenhagen’s emendations and reordering of the variations). Tchaikovsky also arranged the work for cello and piano in 1877.
In the original, there is the theme (Moderato), eight variations and coda. In the “standard” version, Fitzenhagen drops a variation and reorders the others as: I-II-VII-V-VI-III-IV. The entire work, lasting some 20 minutes, will be presented. The music, being evocative of the late 18th century and performed by a chamber orchestra bereft of trumpets and timpani, is calm, ordered, elegant, gracious, modest, poised, lyrical – in short, the antithesis of the typical “Tchaikovskyian” emotional, internal angst that drove the composer much of his life.