Vaughan Williams wrote the first two movements of this Piano Concerto in 1926, and the last in 1930-1931, which contradicts the composer's program note for the first performances, which suggest the finale was written entirely in the year 1930. He composed the work for pianist Harriet Cohen; it was not a success, coming under criticism for its supposed excess of ferocity and grimness. True, the work has a measure of these qualities, but it also contains much wit and many lighthearted passages.
Vaughan Williams scored the concerto for a large orchestra and much of the writing demands the soloist hold his/her own against huge washes of sound. Adrian Boult, who was the conductor at the premiere, and several others suggested to the composer that he might provide a two piano version of the work to create what they perceived as a greater sonic balance between the keyboard and orchestra. In 1946, Joseph Cooper, in collaboration with Vaughan Williams, fashioned a two piano and orchestra rendition which, apart from a few small changes, is largely a faithful arrangement. The original version was neglected for a time, but when this concerto is played today, it is usually heard in the single-piano rendition.
The concerto is cast in three movements: Toccata (Allegro moderato); Romanza (Lento); and Fuga Chromatica con Finale alla Tedesca. The first movement is hard-driving and somewhat grim and accounts for the concerto's tough and violent reputation. The piano begins the work with a series of brilliant chords, and soon the orchestra introduces a jovial, folk-like theme. A shorter theme on piano soon appears and there follows some imaginative development of the materials. The movement ends with a brief Ravellian cadenza which connects to the Romanza middle panel. Oddly, the Toccata's music sounds more than remotely like Bartók's, especially as heard in his first two piano concertos, the earliest of which did not appear until a year after Vaughan Williams had written this. The opening movement may strike some as diffuse in structure and emotionally cold, but its rewards are considerable for the patient listener.
That said, it may be that the Romanza is the most attractive and finely-conceived movement in the work. It is unusual for Vaughan Williams in that it has an almost bluesy atmosphere. The main theme, first played by the piano and then taken up by the flute, is lovely, again suggesting the influence of Ravel, with whom Vaughan Williams studied in 1908. A warm theme in the middle section is more typical of the composer's post-Romantic style, but it is actually a variation on a theme from Bax's Third Symphony. The finale begins without pause after the lovely, quiet ending of the Romanza. The first part is devoted to a rhythmic fugue of great color. A brilliant cadenza bridges this section with the finale proper, which uses the same material from the fugue, but underpins it harmonically rather than fugally.