Is the Piano Concerto Op.33 by Antonin Dvořák a masterpiece? Surprisingly I have been asked this quite a lot lately. Until then I never saw a reason to consider this question, and my answer would have been clear. The recording of this piece by András Schiff and Vienna Philharmonic was actually the first compact disc I proudly owned. I must say the concerto made quite an impact on me, probably because of its rhythmic energy, and its range of imagination.
Even though the Dvořák Concerto has been with me ever since, I only learned it much later. It was not until the Radio-Symphonieorchester Berlin and Marek Janowski offered me a performance that I started working seriously on the music. Shortly after, plans to record it for Naïve Classics with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek concretized.
Personally, studying the historical context of a particular work has always been as important as practising the piece itself. Soon I found out that shortly after the first performance in London, in October 1883, the concerto started collecting negative reviews. Critics were primarily dismissing it because the solo part didn’t produce the desired virtuosic effect.
A quick overview of the most beloved Piano Concertos in late 19th century will show how much Dvořák’s instrumental writing differs from what listeners were used to in this period. Popular concerti by composers such as Moscheles, Alkan and Litolff were written in a more flamboyant and bright style. A Solo Concerto was expected to give the soloist the opportunity to display his technical skills.
Dvořák’s Op.33 was written in 1876, at a time when he was changing his compositional style: he abandoned his focus on the music of Wagner and Liszt and turned his attention to classically-influenced models, form and construction. In addition to this renewed attention, the folk element became more important among his sources of inspiration. The mix of folkloristic energy and classical composition technique is clearly represented in this concerto.
While the outer movements are conceived as enlarged Sonata form (I) and Rondo (III), the second movement appears as more a fantasy-like form, with both recitative and song-like elements. Especially in this movement, the relationship to Beethoven’s fourth Concerto is evident. If you take a closer look, the use of classical Sonata and Rondo form in first and last movements is more complex than it might seem. The symmetrical construction at a local (counting bars in every section will reveal much of his love for symmetry) but also a global level shows precious interconnections.
The piano part of this first version turned out to be far too easy: in 1876, Dvořák, already experienced in composing symphonic music, had not written any work for piano solo. The result couldn’t compete with the pianistic standard of that time. Under pressure from his publisher, he revised the piano part fundamentally for the second version, which was printed in 1883.
Dvořák’s piano writing now became really demanding, but not efficient. It is clear that the composer concentrated on the mere musical aspects without taking into account the ergonomics of the hands. In my opinion this shows that Dvořák cannot have been a consummate pianist himself. For instance, when I performed it for the first time I had the feeling that the audience hardly noticed I was breaking my fingers for 40 minutes.
But this is certainly not the only impression while performing this piece. The originality of Dvořák’s imagination is tremendous. In spite of the formal strictness, he grabs us with his richness of fantasy. Very few octaves and chords make it difficult for the piano to compete with the large symphony orchestra in terms of volume; in return the piano part offers a unique refinement and variety of colours. While performing it, I feel both like a soloist but also as a chamber-music partner of the orchestra.
Due to the presented difficulties, famous Czech pianist Vilém Kurz rearranged the solo part, giving it a lot of brilliance and sound. By doing so, however, he used many elements of the pianism of Liszt and altered Dvořák’s writing. Kurz’s version eliminates the characteristic two-and-a-half to three octaves leap between the hands and the use of the higher register, which gives a particular bell-like soundscape to this concerto.
But the gained brilliance comes at the expense of Dvořák’s peculiar use of colour. Moreover, Kurz “corrected” some harmonies and voice-leadings which for me is unforgivable. It is therefore not surprising that I chose to record Dvořák’s original version.
There is no greater pleasure for me than studying the handwriting of the composers I play. This gives an intimate insight not only into the structure of a piece, but also into the creative process, and even the struggles and troubles. In the case of Op.33, Henle-Verlag published a magnificent facsimile of Dvořák ‘s manuscript. Looking at it, a lot of corrections, modifications and dismissed sections attest to the many obstacles on the way to completion.
On the other hand, numerous sections show us a filigree handwriting, which must have been written in one go and without any apparent effort. This concerto is certainly not one of the most accessible works of Dvořák, but a closer look reveals how the formal structure is only there to support musical imagination, and that’s what marks it as a masterpiece. I consider it to be among the most important works of this genre, maybe even because of its unevenness and nonconformity.
This article was written by Francesco Piemontesi for the release of Schumann / Dvořák: Piano Concertos (2013, Naïve Records)