Johannes Brahms

Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 15

- arranged for Piano Duet by the composer

Arrangements for piano duet by composers of their own works for other forces, or those of other notable composers, is one of Anne and Geoffrey’s particular interests and there are many examples in their repertoire.

Brahms wrote original piano duets but his liking for the ensemble is also manifest in his making piano duet arrangements of many of his chamber and orchestral works, always aiming for the music to sound effective and not just a transcription - the Piano Concerto No. 1 is a powerful example and one of his most rewarding to play. It was about 4 years in composition starting out as a would-be symphony, then a work for 2 pianos; neither satisfied Brahms and he decided to show his skill as a pianist and write it as a concerto.

The whole work is on a grand scale, lasting about 50 minutes in entirety, the first movement being about 20 minutes and the only original material – the other 2 original movements were discarded and replaced. It was completed in 1858 and Brahms gave its first performance in 1859 in Hanover. All orchestral and piano material is included, orchestra and piano being seen as equal partners, not simply a showpiece for the soloist, but jointly extending and developing thematic material. As in most similar transcriptions, some melodic lines are written at slightly higher or lower levels and a few brilliant figurations in the piano part have been adapted, but Brahms does it so cleverly that clarity is easily retained throughout.

The first movement is in classic Sonata Form, but on an immense scale, the main theme featuring arpeggiated motifs, chords and trills. Other contrasting themes are introduced and developed further by both orchestra and soloist. In some ways the piano duet version is less heavy in texture and the individual melodic lines come across more clearly.

The sonorous second movement (Adagio) needs to be played a little more quickly than its orchestral version for the sake of the sustained melodic lines, but even the intricate trills in the cadenza have been well adapted for 4 hands.

The Allegro Finale shows at once Brahms’ love for Hungarian rhythms and atmosphere: it is a lively Rondo with several varied sections including a fugal section starting in Bb minor. The long cadenza finally breaks into D major for the final pages and the whole work ends with triumphant fanfares.

The concerto was published as a duet in 1864 ‘having made it practical and playable……to be performed and not, as is the current fashion, sight-read’. (Brahms, in a letter to the publisher).

It was featured at dramatic moments in the film ‘The L-shaped Room’ (1963) using a recording made by Peter Katin.