Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dvořák - Piano Concerto In G Minor

Out of the three concertos Dvořák wrote for solo instruments, one each for violin, cello and piano, it is the piano concerto that is least well known.  The piano concerto has fine melodies and is well crafted in all but the part for solo piano. At least that was the rap against it early on.  Dvořák's writing for the piano was called clumsy, ineffective, and unpianistic among other complaints. Once the piece got a bad reputation, it was pretty much neglected after its premiere in 1878 by the pianist who requested that Dvořák write a piano concerto, Karel Slavkovský.

A few years after Dvořák's death the Czech teacher and pianist Vilém Kurz tried to help the piece become part of the repertoire by revising the piano part (he left the orchestral part untouched). Sadly, this revision didn't endear the work to pianists much more than the original had. It wasn't until later in the 20th century when the piece came to be played occassionally. The concerto has since been published in score with both the original and Kurz's revision, giving the pianist their choice. No story of the concerto would be complete without mentioning the Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, who practically single handedly kept the work before the public for many years. Firkušný was a student of Kurz, and played the revision for many years, but later in his career he began playing the original version.

Vilem Kurz
Perhaps the biggest problem soloists have with the concerto is the lack of pianistic fireworks. There are two main styles of concerto; those that are vehicles for virtuoso display from the soloist who is just as much an adversary of the orchestra as a partner, and those that are more like a symphony for piano and orchestra where the virtuosity for the soloist is not so obvious. Dvořák's concerto is definitely one of the latter, and he knew it.  There are plenty of examples of both kinds of concerto in the repertoire, and Dvořák's is heard more often than it used to be.

The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro agitato - The first and main theme of the movement is heard straight away, a theme that is pure Dvořák (but showing a little influence of his friend Brahms' music also). The other two themes of the movement have more of a pastoral or folk song feeling.  The first theme reappears and leads to the first entrance of the piano. The piano and orchestra expand the first theme and the other two themes as well.  The first theme appears in the minor to begin the development section which concentrates on the first theme as a whole and in parts of it. All three themes are finally recapitulated and it is the first theme that leads to the cadenza.  The first theme also dominates the coda to the movement and leads to the end of it.

II. Andante sostenuto - The horn is prominent along with the piano in a finely crafted movement.

III. Allegro con fuoco - Dvořák seldom used authentic Czech folk music in his compositions, but he most certainly knew how to compose themes with the flavor of the real thing.  There are three themes in this movement that in form is a hybrid between sonata form and rondo. The first theme has a strong rhythmic element as does the second theme. The third theme is in contrast with the others as it is more laid back.

There is certainly more than one approach to writing a piano concerto. The approach that Dvořák used in this concerto shouldn't work against it as composers as diverse as Litolff, Liszt, and Brahms wrote concertos that were symphonies for piano and orchestra disguised as concertos. Perhaps the times in which Dvořák wrote the work, specifically in reference to the prejudice against Czech composers In Germany, played a part in the early neglect of this concerto. Thankfully, the concerto has overcome this neglect and is played and recorded more often, giving the listener a chance to hear and appreciate this work.

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