Franz Liszt composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, S.124 over a 26-year period; the main themes date from 1830, while the final version dates 1849. It premiered in Weimar on February 17, 1855, with Liszt at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting.Do we date it from when when the first themes were sketched, in which case it would be among the very first romantic concertos, even pre-dating Berlioz' Harold en Italie of 1834? Or do we date it from when the final version was completed in 1849, in which case it comes after the Schumann Piano Concerto and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto? Or from the premiere in 1855? Isn't it odd that the premiere occurred so late?
Liszt's was a complex and contradictory career. He was, at the same time, both the greatest virtuoso (on the piano, at least) of his time and an avant-garde composer (again, of his time). Interestingly enough, it was the radical nature of his themes and harmonies with their stress on the tritone and chromatic scale, that rescued his compositions from the mere shallow brilliance of the style brillant of Thalberg and Kalkbrenner. As far as the concerto goes, around the 1840s the form began to absorb that of the more-prestigious symphony, producing a "symphonic concerto". One of the symptoms of this process is the appearance of a scherzo between the slow movement and the finale. We see this in the Liszt First Piano Concerto:
- Allegro maestoso
- Quasi adagio
- Allegretto vivace - Allegro animato
- Allegro marziale animato
The concerto, while containing a fiendishly difficult virtuoso piano part, has a lot of other interesting features. One particularly admired by Bartók is the use of the cyclic principle: themes return in varied form throughout the work. The finale in particular is a triumph of virtuoso variation technique with its use of the four themes of the Adagio and Scherzo (third movement), transformed in different rhythms and tempi. The main theme of the first movement also returns in the finale to frame the whole work. The textures are also remarkably varied, not only in the polyrhythms of the piano part, but also in the use of solo orchestral instruments in dialogue with the piano. My favorite part is the trio of piano, flute and triangle that forms part of the third movement.
Now let's listen to a particularly stunning version of the piece. This is Martha Argerich delivering a ferocious performance with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the RSO in Berlin in 1981: