Eugen d'Albert's Piano Concerto #1, inspired by the Liszt B Minor Sonata, is a teenager's masterpiece

Eugen d'Albert’s (1864-1932) Piano Concerto #1 in B Minor Op. 2 (there were two earlier 'juvenile' concerti), completed by 1884 and apparently composed when he was 18 and 19, comes across as an attempt to provide the world another Liszt B Minor Sonata, but with a desired loud and triumphant ending. But the piano writing is actually closer to Brahms than Liszt, and the syncopation and harmonies anticipate some effects in the music in Amy Beach’s Piano Concerto about two decades later. Beach will be one of America's renowned female composers; yet this d'Albert work sounds like the work of a beta male announcing his alpha intellect (on top of pianist virtuosity) as a ticket to hyper-masculinity. (He married six times and had eight kids, so, yes, to today's woke world he sounds so heteronormative! But maybe he was really a 'sigma' male.)

The first section presents the two major subject groups (after a long introduction) along with brief development. The first subject is a syncopated march, and the second subject is a long lyrical line in E Major that will sound immediately familiar to any listener.  I can’t identify the popular song or movie score drawn from it. Also, it’s unusual in any sonata form to present a second subject in the subdominant major.  I know of no other work that does this.

The development starts, and trails off to a brief pause, for the slow movement, of sorts, to start. It is in D-flat, with another memorable theme, and a middle section that sounds like an odd setting of Chopin’s Funeral March (in the same key, B-flat minor).  The main theme returns, before the music returns (a very brief pause is desirable in performance to help the listener follow the form) to the first movement themes for a recapitulation.  He gets started recapitulating the second theme in D this time, before breaking for his cadenza, which is amazing. It is a 3-part fugue, with great virtuosity, and for all its closeness to Bach and Reger, in places it is simply atonal and dodecaphonic (chromaticism simply breaks down). Then for the coda, finally in the Picardy B Major, starts put with a scherzando – so does the finale of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.  The second theme grows and explodes suddenly in one grand but brief big tune – Rachmaninoff surely had heard this work.  The runaway coda pivots on the subdominant, a thrill trick that Scriabin would use later to great effect to close out his rather Wagnerian 'Divine Poem'.

By comparison with the Liszt:  in that work, the 'Grandioso' is the second subject but is triumphant the first time it is introduced.  D’Albert saves the grandioso effects for the cadenza and coda.

The performance here is by pianist Joseph Banowetz, with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted Dmitry Yablonsky, pm the channel by John Beuck, licensed from Naxos records (I have that CD hardcopy in my own collection).

I listened to this work a lot during the last two years or so of my mother’s life (she passed at the end of 2010).

Mikhail Pletnev plays the Dante Sonata quasi Fantasia, D Minor, with lots of use of tritones, and a very loud ending, channel of Ashish Xiangyi Kumar. Note that the tritone interval sounds dissonant (in equal temperament) because the pitch ratio is based on the square root of 2, an irrational number.

(Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2022 at 10 PM EDT by John W. Boushka)