Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 21, 1924, with soloist Moriz Rosenthal, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
We customarily view Chopin in terms of the final years of his short life, as Chopin the Frenchman, the hyper-sensitive, physically fragile superstar. But the Chopin who wrote two piano concertos a few months apart in 1829 and 1830 was a vivacious Polish composer, reigning prince of Warsaw’s salons: the precocious Fryderyk Franciszek, as he was christened (not as yet Frédéric François), who had been playing the piano since the age of four and was dubbed “the second Mozart” before he was ten.
None of which is to say that the wealthy Polish families who heaped him with praise and trotted him out at their glamorous soirées regarded his financial needs as their concern. Nor was this gifted and charming young man regarded as worthy of one of the traveling grants to France, Italy, and Austria his government routinely awarded to writers and painters.
Chopin’s failure to receive such a grant intensified his determination to try his luck abroad with funds raised from family and friends, resulting in the momentous 1829 visit to Vienna, where his playing of his own Krakowiak and improvisations on Polish folk tunes was rapturously received.
His most ambitious works to date, the two piano concertos were also taking shape at this time. In these youthful works we are already in the presence of the dreamy-eyed Chopin of Romantic lore: the delicate, sensitive poet of our most ardent imaginings, nowhere more so than in the second movement of the E-minor Concerto.
Chopin initially appears here as the student who has learned his classics well, opening with a long orchestral introduction that presents, in outline form, the movement’s main thematic ideas. But the moment the piano enters with its reiteration of the opening theme, the Chopin we know and adore takes over, the solo restating in liquid phrases the material presented by the orchestra and embellishing it with the roulades and arabesques of Chopin the composer of music for piano alone.
The rapturous slow movement, with its muted violins and striking bassoon part, is, in the composer’s words, “of a romantic, calm, and melancholic character. It is intended to convey the impression one receives when the eye rests on a beloved landscape that calls up in one’s soul beautiful memories – for instance, on a fine, moonlit spring night.”
If the principal reason for the undiminished popularity of the E-minor Concerto is the lush, poetic melodiousness of movements one and two, the brilliance of its finale is enough to satisfy any virtuoso’s need for self-display, but of a uniquely un-bombastic, Chopinesque kind. — Herbert Glass