Brahms Piano Sonata No. 2 in F#m, Op. 2

performed by Krystian Zimerman
movement 1 below; the rest of the piece in the playlist here


Zimerman is back because he’s amazing. Ditto for Brahms.

Last time we saw Brahms (well, before his sextet on Sunday) was last summer. How is that possible? Note to self: make more Brahms. Also, jump to the bottom of the article for a strange thought I had about how this work is like a Mahler symphony!

His second piano sonata was actually written before his first, even though it was published second, but AllMusic (well, John Palmer) suggests that while the piece was written in 1852, dedicated to Clara Schumann and published the following year, it may have been “first performed in public only as late as February 2, 1882, in Vienna.”

In case you don’t know, a few things about Brahms:

  • He was a genius
  • He was in love with Clara Schumann
  • He was in love with Beethoven as an idea

What I mean by that last one is that all the things, at least in my opinion, that Beethoven did so outstandingly well, better than anyone before him, all those things like structural rigor, underlying logic, creative yet organic development, all of these things are things that Johannes Brahms also did extremely well.

Something that blows me away when I have the time and/or am compelled to score read Brahms’s work is his economy of material, what he’s able to produce from such small kernels of ideas, like in his second symphony. Even the sextet from Sunday showed some similar strands across movements. That’s not to say that Brahms was the only person to do that, but his rigorous logic and connectedness across material is really fascinating, and this early work is no exception.

If you love technical, critical analysis of musical structure and the nuts and bolts that make it up and why something works and where it all comes from, then you’ll love Brahms. If, on the other hand, you just want to listen to pretty music that does beautiful things, you should probably listen to Brahms.

It works both ways. I really don’t have the chops for that kind of strict analysis of keys and subjects and transformations and all that kind of thing, but it’s there. I know it is. Kelly Dean Hansen talks about it, and if you want a really hardcore discussion, you’ll have to go see his page.

He makes a few interesting points about the second sonata. It is, as we said, the first to have been composed, and is highly Romantic, virtuosic, almost obnoxiously so, even more than op. 1. if you can believe it. That all being said, it’s really an incredible work, especially to have been composed by a twenty-year-old. The most interesting thing that Hansen brings out is that:

Op. 2 is a type of “fantasy-sonata” in the spirit of some of Beethoven’s works, and later of Robert Schumann’s piano sonatas.  Unlike Op. 1, where the first movement was clearly the most weighty, Brahms shifts the emphasis here to the finale, which is in a full sonata form complete with repeat.

As we’ll see, the layout of the work is almost even more unified, or perhaps blurred, so that it becomes less like a four-movement sonata and more of a sonata-esque thing. I’m fine with that.

The first movement “is a concise and tight argument, without a full coda or an exposition repeat,” and “contains many passages of overt virtuosic display that are atypical of the composer, especially the second theme.” It’s a relatively short first movement without a repeat or coda, and sounds like we’ve walked into a room with someone rehearsing a cadenza for some piano concerto somewhere. Can you just hear The Bearded Wonder rolling his own eyes at what his younger, less hirsute self wrote? The two themes of the first movement are made up of ups and downs, both across the keyboard, dynamic range, and the emotional one. After our first cadenza-like theme that covers lots of the keyboard, there’s a surprisingly lengthy bass undercurrent that introduces triplets and leads into the second theme, a kind of tug of war between the two hands, the right playing a more delicate melody.

The development of a movement with two such bordering-on-strident themes is bound to be big and bold, but after all the fireworks, the piece ends quietly, leading us into the second movement, one of Brahms’ first swings at a theme-and-variations movement. It is (at least in Zimerman’s reading) longer than the first movement. The movement is marked andante con espressione, and is based on the German Minnesang Mir ist leide, or that’s what Wiki tells me. I’ve never heard the German song. But it strikes me as a youthful, even nostalgic thing to do, and in contrast with the first movement, the second is spacious, pensive, even a bit dark. This is a lovely, rich, generally more delicate movement, with space to breathe and feel. Palmer says “The variations are free, particularly the second, which grows to a powerful climax on the relative major (D major).” Brahms does things with keys; in the AllMusic article, Palmer also describes the tricky beginning of the recapitulation in the first movement.

The second movement does not end so much as dribble over into and become the scherzo. The line between these two movements is kind of blurred, but it’s very quick, chatty, almost nefarious-sounding scherzo, with short but undulating notes in the bass. Just like that it’s over and the trio appears. I think this is likely the most beautiful passage of the entire work, and it’s nice that we have the time and space to enjoy it. It’s longer than the scherzo proper, and clean and clear. Each note rings out clearly, like the sound of bells echoing unimpeded across a landscape. It’s warm and comforting and peaceful, distant-sounding, but rich. It builds to a more powerful, thunderous climax, as if we’re finally within reach of whatever tower houses these bells.

Our bells turn unpleasantly dissonant and the menacing kind of dark scherzo returns, lest we forget we actually are in a scherzo movement. There’s a constant trill way up in treble and we get one last echo of our bells under it before the piece comes to a sudden and commanding finish.

Prior to this, we’ve had this sonata-fantasy-like layout, with a very short but eventful first movement, and a theme-and-variations movement that bleeds over or transforms into a scherzo (with a much more substantial trio), and now the finale, the meatiest movement of the work. But… it almost doesn’t feel like we’re there. Where the opening movement lacked an exposition repeat and coda and all the rest, this one has plenty of beef to it. There’s a lengthy-ish quiet introduction to the work before we get to the exposition, which is repeated, and then rounded out by a coda similar to the opening. It’s notable that this movement makes up about 40% of the work, so it’s a lot of music, not to mention how structurally beefy it is. Go check out Hanson’s play-by-play, but it almost feels like perhaps this movement was written after the others. While it’s equally virtuosic and showy, it’s finally when we feel like we’ve reached a German piano sonata, with all the fixings. Hansen, at the top of his analysis, says the following of the work:

The passionate themes of the main portion are highly “Schumannesque,” and therefore quite derivative.  The movement, while the biggest, is also the weakest.  This sonata is generally regarded as the least impressive of the three, but no other work of the composer reveals a closer connection to his early-romantic predecessors, especially Schumann, and the middle movements are very fine.  Some commentators have described it as his most “un-Brahmsian” work of all, and therein lies much of its interest.

Be that as it may, agree with it or not, it’s still a joy to listen to. Let me get to that Mahler bit.

The Mahler Bit

It’s only superficial, but on a small scale, it feels a bit like a Mahler symphony, or some of them. The first movement gives us a sonata form (but no repeat), the second makes use of folky themes in a slow movement, the scherzo is at once dark and ominous but tenderly beautiful, and you get to the final movement to feel like the piece is finally just starting. It’s very end-heavy. That’s all.

The final movement alone is longer than (almost) all of Scriabin’s single-movement piano sonatas, and even after the recapitulation, there’s still a rather large coda to get through, and while it’s pretty and all, I start having the impression that he may have gone a little far with this movement, considering the scope of the rest of the piece. Halve the intro and the coda, cut out the exposition repeat, and we’ve hacked at least four minutes off the movement.

Whatever it is, it’s still an impressive opus 2 for a twenty-year-old pianist, even if it is “the least impressive” or “derivative.” I was originally going to do all three sonatas in one fell swoop last summer for that piano month, but there are only three, so we should savor them. The best one left for last. As for what else is coming this week, stay tuned. It’s a big one.

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