Hans Pfitzner composed his Piano Concerto in E flat major, Op. 31, while he was a teacher of composition at the Prussian Academy in Berlin. It is an excellent example of the composer's style, and a reminder that he was as esteemed a musician in Germany as was Richard Strauss before the Jewish Pfitzner's suppression by the Nazi government in 1934.
The Piano Concerto was first performed on March 16, 1923, in Dresden by pianist Walter Gieseking and conductor Fritz Busch. Gieseking so admired the piece that he retained it in his repertoire for many years, prompting Pfitzner's dedication of the Five Piano Pieces, Op. 47, to Gieseking in 1941.
Pfitzner's style, in general, is conservative in that it looks to the past for formal, melodic, and harmonic procedures. However, Pfitzner looks back to exclusively German sources, foregoing Italian or French developments. His non-democratic political views during the Weimar years (1919-1933) can be seen as manifest in his Piano Concerto, in which the hegemony of the piano is clear throughout most of the piece.
In four movements, the Piano Concerto begins with a fast movement in sonata form. The main theme, in E flat major, is marked, "Pomphaft, mit Kraft und Schwung" (pompous, with strength and vitality). For the secondary theme, Pfitzner slows the tempo and moves to the dominant minor (B flat minor), lending the contrasting theme an unusual expressiveness. Throughout the ensuing development section, the piano part continually attempts to impose its lyrical material on the adamant march theme of the orchestra.
The second movement, scherzo-like and cheerful, counters the seiousness of the first; the piano and orchestral parts intertwine rapidly, although the piano clearly comes out to be the "winner." The following slow movement, in contrast, is meditative and song-like in format, and the orchestra has almost as great a role in the presentation of thematic material as does the piano.
The beginning of the boisterous Finale is startling after the quiet third movement. Humorous and repetitive, the Finale features an extended fugal cadenza which stands in stark contrast to the purely homophonic writing in the rest of the movement, and, indeed, the whole concerto.