Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, op. 25

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            The Italian trip that inspired the fourth symphony bore fruit in another significant way, for it was also the time of Mendelssohn's first mature piano concerto, finished in 1831.  Supposedly composed “hastily,” it was given its première in Munich in October of that year.  There were several quite good student works composed in that genre earlier—and in them he advanced some felicitous changes in the form of the first movement, possibly under the influence of Carl Maria von Weber.  He did away with the time-honored practice of separately giving both soloist and orchestra separate shots at the main themes, and simply telescoped that section into a tighter form.  Both the soloist and the orchestra thereby “share” the single statement of themes.  He also—in a move that reflected a general tendency in the romantic period—joined all three movements for continuity.   Further, a typical romantic, he evidently felt that a straightforward recapitulation in the best classical style in sonata form movements was a bit repetitious.  Accordingly, he often varied and “developed” ideas somewhat in that section to give more drama to the approaching conclusion.  And typically all three movements are perfect examples of Mendelssohn’s characteristically brilliant, but somewhat delicate piano figurations.  This certainly is not the bellowing virtuosity of Franz Liszt that we hear here—although it must be admitted some of the percussive octaves in the last movement come close.  The slow movement, to my mind, alludes to the gentle atmosphere in the composer’s famous Songs without Words for solo piano.

            The first concerto begins with a stormy, short introduction in the orchestra, leading quickly to the entry of the piano—no long leisurely classical wait for the piano!  The dynamic first theme is heard right off, first primarily by the soloist, and then shortly by the orchestra’s turn.  It’s veritable storm of activity.  But, of course, a somewhat more lyrical second theme is expected soon in the relative major key, and we get it.  Here, Mendelssohn’s proclivity for harmonic explorations takes us through several interesting keys.  And, lyrical though it is, Mendelssohn sustains the rhythmic drive right through the section.  Unexpectedly, the dark, driving first theme suddenly interrupts enigmatically for a short statement before we appropriately return to the main second theme.  The middle section typically explores elements of both themes in swirls of figurations before transiting to an abbreviated recap that most surprisingly leads to a sudden interruption by a kind of fanfare in the brass in the parallel major key—G.  After a quick modulation to E minor and a very short cadenza-like passage for the soloist, the slow movement follows immediately.

            The second movement begins with a hymn-like theme in the strings.  Taken up by the piano, some development of the idea leads smoothly into a new theme in a refreshing new key with its own harmonic diversions.  But, in this simple ABA movement, we return to the main theme, but of course, with Mendelssohn’s typical imagination enhancing and extending it, before its serene end.

            The last movement—just like the middle movement—is introduced by a vigorous fanfare in the brass—in E minor before quickly modulating to the “right” key of G major.  The piano (again) jumps right in with florid figurations, and soon we’re off to the races with a scintillating rondo.  The main theme is straightforward and easy to recognize. And, of course, being a rondo, we soon get a completely different idea—bubbling with figurations, whipping along in a frenzy. A quick re-statement of the first idea leads in best rondo fashion to another new idea.  After being tossed around a bit, naturally it yields to the main theme—this time developed a bit.  Finally, a last new idea surfaces, this time in quick dialogue with the orchestra.  The main theme finally ushers us to the end, but not before a quick allusion to the main idea from the first movement, embedded in a flurry of virtuosity.           

            This remarkably tasteful, entertaining, and well-constructed work is a perfect example of the composer’s standing as a classicist who nevertheless exemplified the best of romantic musical style.  All the more astounding was his age when he composed it:  twenty-two!           Mendelssohn’s piano concertos are not heard in our concert halls nearly as much as his violin concerto, or many of his other works, for that matter. Their graceful beauty and flawless craftsmanship are a refreshing delight.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan