The concerto as ‘Bildungsroman’

Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto (1909) can be interpreted by both soloist and listener as a supreme Bildungsroman. I become fully aware of this approach when I watch the possessed Daniil turning the concerto into a bravura self-formation. He is enacting the tumultuous affective education of a young man, highlighting the Romantic plot of the work. I follow him from his early development through successive crescendos (Allegro ma non tanto) to the variations on an elusive emotion (Adagio) and the reconciliation of his early drives in a self-affirming maturity (Alla breve).


The narrative of the concerto reaches a breathtaking intensity in the famous alternative cadenza of the 1st movement, the grand ossia, where a stumbling march climaxes in a desolate cry before four successive winds sing to the piano and console its arpeggios.

In a multiple review, “Daniil Trifonov’s Sleight of Hand” (New Yorker, Jan.9, 2017), Alex Ross writes enthusiastically about a performance he attended in December 2016: “The heart of the second cadenza is an imperious elaboration of the suave, sauntering theme with which the concerto begins. Although it is marked Allegro molto, it requires a Lisztian barrage of fortissimo chords in various registers. Trifonov could have knocked it off at high speed; instead, he took a deliberate, almost labored approach, slowing to a crawl in the turn to G minor. The sound was immense, seeming to ventriloquize the orchestra sitting silently by. There was a palpable sense of struggle—not technical but emotional, a battle of the heart. The passage assumed a tragic heft that changed the meaning of the concerto around it.”

In an earlier (June 2015) Trifonov performance, the one linked above, I witness a comparable intensity  for 3 staggering minutes (10:55-13:50, though I start at 10:35 just to see his dark eyes as he is getting ready for the cadenza): This is the point of utter despair where Hölderling crossed the threshold of madness.

I believe that there are many more concerti for various instruments that can be interpreted as a Bildungsroman, starting with Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (1895) and Michael Daugherty’s Fire and Blood (2003) violin concerto, based on the life of painter Frida Kahlo. I am going to think more about it, and discuss it with another virtuoso of Bildung, Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self.”

January 10, 2017

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