Top Ten Concertos
The Romantic Piano Concerto
During my twenties I found the Romantic Piano Concerto a very exciting and magical genre, and couldn't discover enough of these concertos from obscure as well as more familiar composers. More recently my enthusiasm has waned as I found these concertos saying less and less that I had not already heard. I also found other genres more compelling and my outlook on music changing and becoming more mature. It is perhaps not a coincidence that many romantic concertos were written by composers early on in their careers. Having said this, many are still wonderful pieces of music and I maintain a soft spot for them. It is therefore with renewed pleasure that I make my re-acquaintance with many of these concertos, and consider new ones.
Background to the Romantic Concerto
The Romantic concerto came into being at a time when the piano was developing rapidly, and the virtuoso pianist was coming into vogue. Many of these pianists were touring virtuosos, and wrote concertos for themselves to play, and as vehicles for their own virtuosity. For this reason many of them were written when the composer-pianist was young, and in many cases can hardly be considered great works of art. However, later on in the period the concerto took on a dramatic significance and an epic quality which seemed to represent what the romantic concerto stood for. The Romantic piano concerto can broadly be divided into three main phases, starting with the early or "classical" romantics, then the mature Romantics, and finally the Late Romantics. However, as with any attempt to categorize music, or indeed virtually any area of art, this is intended purely for convenience and not to be taken too literally, as there will be found many composers who don't fit easily into any category, particularly if they slip between the boundaries of one category and another.
The "Classical" Romantic Concerto
These composers were generally contemporary with or slight later than Beethoven, and their concertos follow the classical three movement plan with a first movement loosely based on concerto form, the most conspicuous evidence of this being the retention of the orchestral exposition. Such composers include Hummel, Field, Weber, Moscheles, Sterndale Bennett and Chopin. I must admit I don't generally find these concertos as compelling as later Romantic concertos, and cannot usually stomach more than a couple at any one sitting. They often come across as formal, reticent and dutiful works that may include excellent things but cannot erase the impression of going through the motions in order to fill a pre-conceived mould. This is rarely a feeling I have when listening to Mozart's concertos, the composer who more than anyone made the concerto an important part of his compositional achievement. Although Mozart used the classical concerto form many times, he used it and varied it to his own ends, and consistently breathed new life into it. Unfortunately this is not so apparent with the concertos of the classical romantics, were the life blood of the form appears to be in shorter supply. That said, many of these concertos remain attractive and entertaining works in their own way, and are important when assessing the development of the concerto through the early 19th century.
The Mature Romantic Concerto
The second phase is that of the mature romantics. Some of these, including Liszt and Schumann, were contemporary with the classical romantics, but wrote in a more advanced formal style. Mendelssohn's concertos don't fit easily into either group, and in a different way the same can also be said of Brahms. He was a nature romantic, but remained true to the classical form when it must have seemed particularly anachronistic. However, he did so in a way that brought his works to life and gave them a powerful intellect that may otherwise have been lacking and indeed was lacking in other contemporary concertos. His concertos seem to continue where Beethoven left off, albeit after a gap of many years. The mature romantics are otherwise made up of composers like Grieg, BrŁll, Tchaikovsky, Saint-SaŽns, Moszkowski and Scharwenka, all of which wrote compelling, attractive and memorable concertos. Scharwenka's and Tchaikovsky's concertos are particularly dramatic, with the heroic soloist pitted against the orchestra in music that in its way represents the epitome of the romantic piano concerto. This group of composers may have followed classical formal principles, with or without an opening orchestral exposition, but they were not bound by them, and indeed Liszt introduced a new one movement style of concerto composition that, combined with his system of thematic transformation, influenced a number of later romantic composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-SaŽns, D'Albert, and Lyapunov.
The Late Romantic Concerto
The final phase is the late romantic phase, when most of its composers were writing in a high romantic style out of sympathy with the musical developments of the day. These composers were typically born c.1860-1880, and to my mind represent one of the most fascinating and appealing periods in the history of the concerto. These composers, which included D'Albert, DohnŠnyi, Stojowski and Stenhammar, wrote big ambitious concertos in a rich romantic style which usually include sweeping melodies, lush orchestral writing and colourful piano parts. These concertos can sound similar to romantic film music, and can positively carry the listener away. Rachmaninov also belongs to this group, and his influence on other composers, such as Stanford and Harty, and on the 1940s film score composers such as Addinsell, was significant.
History or recordings and their reception.
© Copyright 2004, Barry Meehan