Of many legends of great classical pieces coming out of of long gestation, Liszt’s first Piano concerto would probably stand out on top thanks to the number of years he had spent on the piece, 26 years! From the year it was first sketched out in 1830, till the year of its publication in 1856.
What’s unique about this concerto is its form. Unlike conventional concertos, it has 4 movements: a fast opening movement, a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale. However after listening to it couple of times, it wouldn’t be difficult to make two observations. First, the three movements after the first are connected without gap (and performed as such), the slow movement and scherzo do not have a tonal resolution; second, the last movement has no new thematic material, it is all variation of motifs from previous movements.
1. Allegro maestoso
The opening theme is a catchy phrase led by lower strings and answered by the winds:
It is immediately followed by a passage of thundering octaves and a piano cadenza:
Contrasting to the powerful main themes, the 2nd theme consists of a serene and beautiful melody, first on clarinet, then alternating between piano, solo violin and the orchestra. Here’s the first part:
then the melody, first introduced by the piano:
After the main theme comes back with an even stronger force than the beginning (joined now by the brass), the piano plays a double speed variation of it, and the movement soon quiets down and comes to an end.
2. Quasi Adagio
The slow movement opens its first theme again on the lower strings, the 1st part‘s melody is broad though a bit gloomy, but then becomes more relaxed when piano repeats it, with arpeggios flowing on the left hand:
The 2nd part, opposite to and answering to the above, is a descending tune played by the strings:
which is immediately followed by the piano’s recitative, which sounds more or less based on the descending tune:
The 2nd theme is introduced then by the flute, elegant and pleasant, as opposed to the sense of unease displayed in the recitative earlier:
3. Allegretto vivace. Allegro animato
Without any sense of logical break, the second movement leads directly into the scherzo, which is a witty and playful (mostly, except for when the opening theme comes back) section contrasting the slow movement. The theme is preceded by twinkling triangle and played out by the solo piano:
After some further development (variation) of the theme, the piano suddenly quiets down, and we hear the opening theme from first movement murmuring on the lower register of the piano, then gradually grows stronger and joint by the strings then the whole orchestra, and finally erupts into a loud section of recapitulation, which reiterate below themes:
- 1st movement, opening theme, led by brass
- 2nd movement, 2nd theme, now alternating between oboe and strings
- 1st movement, piano cadenza
and again, without pause, the piano plays a short descending scale and leads the music right into the finale.
4. Allegro marziale animato
The entire finale is based on thematic materials from previous movements, structural wise a recapitulation, but far from that of traditional sense in the sonata form, all because technique-wise this movement is what is referred to as “thematic transformation”. As the renowned music critic Michael Steinberg quoted some description from Liszt himself in his program note, “this binding and rounding off a piece at its close,” Liszt wrote, “is a technique I have made my own, but it is justified by the musical form”. Below lists the key transformation parts played in order:
A. 2nd movement, main theme, transformed into an uplifting march by the orchestra (right after this the :
B. 2nd movement, theme 2, now jumping with dotted rhythm on the piano:
C. 3rd movement, main theme, now in 4/4 time on piano:
D. and finally, the opening theme is now played in a triple-condensed rhythm at lightening speed on the piano, with its tremendous momentum coming from first downward then ascending chromatic octaves, pushing the finale to climactic end:
 Program notes by Michael Steinberg, San Francisco Symphony.