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Composed: 1891; 1917, 1919
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani percussion (cymbals, triangle), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 12, 1960, William Steinberg conducting, with soloist Byron Janis

“I have rewritten my First Concerto,” Rachmaninoff communicated to a friend. “It is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily. And nobody pays any attention. When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third.”

Youthful freshness is not an unexpected quality considering that the first movement of the Concerto was written by a student musician of 17, and the second and third movements when he was all of 18. What is remarkable is that Rachmaninoff maintained the freshness when he revised the work in 1917, some 26 years later. By that time, he had many major works to his credit – in addition to the Second and Third Piano Concertos, there were two symphonies, for the second of which he had won the prestigious Glinka Prize. And he had become celebrated not only as a composer but also as a pianist and conductor. The First Concerto, then, reflects both a teenaged Rachmaninoff who was already in possession of a strongly defined compositional style, and a mature, worldly, and experienced creative artist.

The 26-year delay between the completion of the Concerto and its final revision is typical of Rachmaninoff’s somewhat haphazard approach to composing. The fact is, in his youth he was known as a somewhat lethargic student. Yet, in spite of his efforts to avoid hard work, he turned out some impressive scores even before graduating from the Moscow Conservatory: In addition to the First Concerto, there was the one-act opera Aleko, which won the admiration of Tchaikovsky, and several piano pieces, including the C-sharp-minor Prelude, whose immense success hounded the composer throughout his life. And of course, the emotional abyss into which he fell following the failure of his First Symphony in 1897 halted his productivity until a kind of hypnosis treatment brought him out of the depression and into the glories of the Second Piano Concerto.

In the matter of compositional style, the First Concerto is thoroughly characteristic of Rachmaninoff’s once and always manner, which is both Russian and Romantic. In regard to the former, the composer said, “I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has inevitably influenced my temperamental outlook.” Continuing this statement, Rachmaninoff in effect explained the Romanticism of his music: “My music is a product of my temperament and so it is Russian music. I never consciously attempted to write Russian music, or any other kind of music.” Neither did he attempt to explore any of the contemporary stylistic trends that were appearing on the horizon. Rachmaninoff might have entered the new century making bold new sounds – after all, he was only 27 in 1900. But his musical mentality was of a different order than that of, say, his countryman Stravinsky, and he remained virtually impervious to the shock waves of the revolutionary salvos being released in the Europe of his time. Rachmaninoff the incorrigible Romantic continued throughout his career to operate in his own distinctive creative orbit, an orbit defined by plush lyricism that rides the waves of luxurious, enriched harmonies, and, in the piano works, expansive, richly detailed virtuosity in the grand 19th-century bravura tradition.

The mark of youthful impetuosity is particularly apparent at the opening of the First Concerto, where an urgent two-measure fanfare in horns, clarinets, and bassoons sparks a fiery entrance from the piano, which, erupting high in the treble, lunges down the keyboard in blazing double octaves and chords. In his subsequent three piano concertos, the first-movement scene is set with far more reserve and seriousness: at age 17, temperamental abandon came naturally. Following this introductory boldness, which climaxes in a cadenza-like flourish, the strings sing the lyric main theme, after which the piano takes the melody, adorning it with inimitable Rachmaninoffian decoration. Later, a stunning cadenza that follows an expanded return of the fanfare opening treats the main materials in a fantastic, brilliant fashion.

The middle movement’s nocturnal atmosphere, initiated by a horn solo, may echo the mood of the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, but the melting, extended piano solo that follows resonates with the pure Romanticism of Rachmaninoff. In this movement as in the vital finale, the pianism is absolutely ravishing and quite able to compensate for the somewhat wobbly structural stability, and, in the last movement, for the theme in a slow middle section that exceeds the acceptable level of sugar content. What matter: “It is really good now… it plays itself so much more easily.” (if one has the fingers and the soul of Rachmaninoff).

— Orrin Howard