Concerto for Piano and Winds

Some composers in the 20th century like Bartók, Prokofiev, or Rachmaninov, were also acclaimed concert pianists. Others, for instance, Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern, did not play the piano (or any other instrument) in public. Stravinsky, whose stylistic about-faces astounded the world several times during his extraordinary 60-year career as a composer, was an exceptional case even here: he could appear as a concert pianist if he wanted to, yet this aspect of his activities was intermittent at best. Concentrating above all on his own works, he performed only when particularly motivated. There is no doubt that the motivation was, at least in part, financial – he could significantly increase his income if he added a soloist’s honorarium to the composer’s fee.


Fifteen years before playing the premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Winds, Stravinsky had already appeared as a pianist, performing his early Four Etudes in St. Petersburg. Yet he had not kept up his piano playing over the years. So, in order to master the technical demands of his concerto, he had to get back in shape by practicing the etudes of Carl Czerny several hours a day. The premiere was so successful that Stravinsky played the concerto almost 40 times between 1924 and 1928, at which point the need for a second concerto arose. Since Stravinsky never gave his works serial numbers, the new work received the title Capriccio for piano and orchestra. Movements belongs to a much later period in Stravinsky’s life where the aging composer no longer played the piano in public; he was, however, the conductor at the premiere.


The Concerto and the Capriccio have several features in common, but the differences are more striking than the similarities. First of all, in the Concerto Stravinsky omitted the string section (except for double basses), while the Capriccio calls for a regular symphony orchestra. Both works are in three movemens (fast-slow-fast), but the Concerto is more serious in tone whereas the playful elements predominate in the Capriccio. And while the Concerto places the greatest emphasis on its first movement, the defining moment of the Capriccio is the sparkling finale (which was in fact written before the other movements).


The Piano Concerto opens with a solemn introduction whose dotted rhythms allude to French Baroque overtures. Similarly, the Allegro that follows is reminiscent of a Baroque toccata, now percussive and repetitive, now polyphonic, now melodic. It is rare for Stravinsky to repeat a long musical section as literally as he does here: the undisguised symmetry of the movement is one of the most obvious neo-Classical features of the movement. Even the slow introduction returns at the end.


The second-movement Largo opens with a simple melody played by the solo piano with chordal accompaniment. The beautiful but somewhat cold theme becomes more animated in the ensuing cadenza, followed by a faster polymetric section. The cadenza and the opening material return in reverse order, giving the music, once again, a symmetrical shape.


The finale takes up several motifs from the first movement in varied form. As before, much of the piano part is in continuous sixteenth motion, though the style this time is less Baroque than it was in the first movement. It was in the finale of his Octet for Winds, written shortly before the concerto, that Stravinsky had first hit upon this particular way of combining echoes of various popular styles with a contemporary idiom, resulting in a movement with equal amounts of melodic charm and harmonic “bite.” Although Stravinsky had moved very far from his earlier “Russian-period” works in the Piano Concerto, we may recognize him, among other things, by his fondness for asymmetrical rhythms that is evident in all three movements of the concerto.

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