The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Richard Freed

Dvořák composed his only piano concerto during August and September 1876, at the request of the pianist Karel Slavkovský, who gave the premiere in Prague on March 24, 1878, with Adolf Čech conducting. Rudolf Firkušný was the soloist in all of the National Symphony Orchestra's prior performances of this work, the earliest on March 5, 1944, with Hans Kindler conducting, and the most recent on January 17-19 and 22, 1991, with Jiří Bĕlohlávek conducting.

In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration, 38 minutes.

The year of this work's creation was an eventful one for Dvořák, marked by personal tragedy and professional success. It was the death of his second infant daughter that year that moved him to begin his Stabat Mater. His second book of Moravian Duets, completed that year, was sent by Brahms to his own publisher, leading to Dvořák's first international success and bringing many requests for new compositions. Dvořák was very much aware of his indebtedness to Brahms (who remained a close friend the rest of his life), and it is thought that in the Piano Concerto he was as eager to please him as he was to satisfy Karel Slavkovský, the Czech pianist who had asked for the work. More than a few commentators have felt this concerto was modeled, on a somewhat smaller scale, after the D minor Concerto Brahms composed some 18 years earlier.

Apart from the question of influence or model, the Concerto is a beautiful and inspiriting work, rich in Dvořák's characteristic melodic abundance and vivid coloring—and yet there was general agreement for some time that the Piano Concerto, despite his best efforts to write "pianistically," was a less than ideal vehicle for the solo instrument. While the composer wrote eloquently for the piano in his chamber music—the great Op. 81 Piano Quintet, the four piano trios, the two piano quartets—he himself expressed misgivings about the piano writing in the Concerto, and others were only too ready to echo and expand upon his concern. It was felt that the solo part was "unidiomatic" and "clumsy": one frequently repeated judgment was that it was written "for two right hands." As late as 1943, Alec Robertson, a British critic who patently adored Dvořák, wrote in his widely circulated study of the composer and his music:

Over this score might well be written "a warning to young composers. The piano passage-work sounds as if Dvořák had . . . weighed out his ingredients fairly accurately, but mixed them with the heavy hand of an inexpert cook."
In the face of this continuous bad-mouthing from people who otherwise admired and loved Dvořák, the Piano Concerto never found a secure berth in the so-called standard repertory. Some fifteen years after Dvořák's death the Czech musician and pedagogue Vilém Kurz responded to such criticisms by undertaking a thoroughgoing revision of the work's solo part. Since then the solo part of this concerto has existed in more than a single version: both the composer's original one and the Kurz revision, in fact, are printed tog ether, one under the other, in Otakar Šourek's critical edition of the score, while the orchestral material is not affected by the soloist's choice.

Complementing the published score with its two versions of the solo part, the Czech recording company Supraphon issued a compact disc on which Ivan Moravec plays the Kurz version, with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek, and Radoslav Kvapil plays the composer's original one, with the Brno State Philharmonic under František Jílek; more than a few listeners who were not actually following a score simply failed to notice much of a difference, but the issue remained important to musicians.

Rudolf Firkušný, whose devoted partisanship almost alone kept the work in the repertory through several decades during which few other pianists performed it, studied with Kurz and played his version of the solo part for many years (with some emendations of his own), but eventually came to accept the original version almost entirely. Among the relatively few other pianists who have taken up the work, some have supported Kurz wholeheartedly; some have just as enthusiastically rejected the revision and insisted there was nothing clumsy or crude in what the composer himself set down; some have opted for cuts. Garrick Ohlsson, who has identified himself strongly with the Concerto for some thirty years, has devised an effective version of the solo part that is a judicious mixture of portions of both the original and the Kurz revision, without cuts anywhere.

As already noted, the music is fully characteristic of its beloved composer. Lyric and dramatic elements are effectively contrasted in the opening movement. The two principal themes are extensively developed, and one of the secondary ones has a particularly folkish character. The cadenza is based largely on the first subject.

The slow movement is an idyll of serenity. A theme of noble simplicity, stated by the horn, forms the basis for a dialogue between soloist and orchestra that reaches no great climax but sustains a convincing atmosphere of deep peace.

It is in the vigorous finale that Dvořák's authorship is most immediately recognizable. An energetic but somewhat restrained quasi-rondo, it evokes the general character of the Slavonic Dances in almost every bar. There is an actual thematic relationship to the second of Dvořák's three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op. 45 (also in G minor), composed in 1878. While Dvořák seldom made use of actual folk material in his works—even in the Slavonic Dances he created original themes and simply steeped them in the flavor of the real thing—a real folk song was the source here, and it emerges in its unaltered form in the stretto. The words, quite at odds with the more substantial implications of the tune itself (or, in any event, with the composer's treatment of it), may be rendered:
I won't go home,
I won't go home;
My cruel wife would beat me
Because I ate all her noodles.