The very first thing to be aware of in this concerto is the way the orchestra and piano alternate; rarely do the two forces lay together as equal partners. Rather, either the piano or the orchestra leads, and most often the orchestral sections are little more than melodic bridges linking the technically demanding piano solos. Another important element to note is the fluidity of the structure; frequently the pace speeds and slows, ebbing and flowing freely.
The beginning of the concerto is dramatic; a quiet timpani roll rapidly gets louder and erupts into one chord blasted by the entire orchestra and the piano. From within this explosion the piano emerges with its first solo, a thoughtful yet powerful introduction instantly establishing the romantic mood of the work. The piano’s final note is held as it fades away, leading to a momentary pause. The silence is filled as the strings provide a jerky accompaniment for the woodwinds, who quietly establish the melody; it is tentative and tinged with sorrow. The clarinet and bassoon continue the theme with a lyrical line becoming more intense and passionate when echoed by the flutes, oboe, and first violins.
The piano then takes the melody and plays it nobly and somewhat dreamily, qualities heightened when the strings add a lush background. Left alone, the piano speeds up, becoming animated with a series of uneven, flitting passages. Listen for the way the oboe joins the piano, adding its soulful tone echoing the piano’s melodic line. Then, after a gradual slowdown, the mood changes again, becoming ultraromantic as the cellos play a gorgeous solo conjuring up images of candlelit elegance. Following the pattern of alternation established early in the movement, the piano takes this new melody, turning it into a dreamy, thoughtful little phrase accompanied only by sustained, quiet notes in the strings; the dreaminess is heighten by the solo bassoon adding its plantitive tone.
Slowly the speed increases, leading to another piano solo ending as the orchestra takes over excitedly. This, the first extended orchestra solo, is punctuated by dramatic trumpet calls ringing through with militaristic fervor, tempered by a subdued horn solo and fading into the return of the solo piano. This rhapsodic solo is accompanied by tender solos from the flute and horn. But the mood is shattered by a determined outburst from the orchestra as the piano part turns even more rhapsodic and florid, gradually speeding up. The orchestra grows angrier with a series of blasts interrupted by the piano. Ultimately, as the strain eases, the orchestra fades, replaced by the solo piano reprising the movement’s original melody.
The next sections are basically repeats of what has already been heard. As before, the piano becomes animated, speeding up, flitting gracefully over the keys. The ultraromantic cello solo returns and re-creates the candlelit aura echoed by the dreamy piano solo then heightened by a beautiful duet for the horn and piano. When the piano takes over accompanied only by quiet bits in the orchestra, the intensity and passion increase, gradually leading to a determined outburst by the orchestra. Weighted down, the pace slows and leads to a dramatic timpani roll followed by an abrupt full stop. Quickly filling the silence, the piano plays its cadenza, an extended rhapsodic interlude evoking romantic images as it ebbs and flows, a passionate, dramatic, technical tour de force for the soloist.As the cadenza ends, the horn, timpani, and strings take over, leisurely at first. But when the solo oboe and bassoon play the melody over an agitated string accompaniment, the speed picks up. The piano enters reprising the movement’s opening piano solo, then joining with the whole orchestra for a frantic race to the movement’s final explosive chord and dramatic timpani roll.