Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 83

performed by Maurizio Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado

I find Brahms so intimidating to talk about (if you haven’t already noticed). Like I mentioned in Tuesday’s post about the piano sonata, there’s always so much going on, so much to notice or talk about, that is frankly, beyond my ability to notice, and so if I were to try to share it, the article devolves into me quoting and cutting/pasting research from other sources. And we won’t do that.

I was wondering if perhaps I should hold off on writing about this work, because almost exactly a month from now (at the end of May ’16) I’ll be hearing Stephen Hough Himself perform this work here in Taipei with our NSO. I’m very excited about it, and there’s no better way to get to know a work than to sit in a concert hall and watch one of the world’s greatest living pianists perform it before your eyes.

But I’ve also painted myself into a German-piano-works corner and so here we are. That all being said, what comes next week is even more intimidating than writing about Brahms. I’ll have to do lots of hedging.

Hough wrote an incredible article comparing The Bearded Wonder’s two piano concertos on The Guardian, beginning by saying:

The first, written in 1858 when the composer was still a young man, is like a symphony where piano and orchestra seem involved at times in a titanic struggle, themes are hurled across the stage with dramatic rhetoric; the second, composed two decades later, feels more like a massive chamber work, where the musical ideas are an exchange rather than a confrontation. If the first is more about proclamation, the second is perhaps more about reception – a speaker versus a listener.

Go read the article. Hough shares wonderful insights, things he thought about performing these pieces back-to-back (in 2013?).

Tuesday’s piano sonata is an example of Brahms’ vibrance, his energy, his ambition, raw talent, kind of an unpolished, green, vibrant young man. There’s so much overt energy and passion and romanticism and virtuosity in the work, and the first piano concerto is more along those lines. Twenty years later, with “Brahms at the height of his confident maturity,” we have a very different approach, but that’s not to say it’s any less complex or musical.

Premiered in 1881 in Budapest with the composer as soloist, it was “an immediate success.” It is a four-movement concerto instead of just three, resulting in a concerto of much larger proportions than typically seen, coming in at around 50 minutes. Interestingly, in the scoring, trumpets and timpani are silent for the final two movements. Poor guys.

Wikipedia also mentions that upon completion, Brahms sent the work to Theodore Billroth (surgeon and violinist, responsible for bringing the doctor’s white coat into use), “describing the work as “some little piano pieces.”[1] Brahms even described the stormy scherzo as a “little wisp of a scherzo.”” What humor. It is, of course, neither of those things.

Instead of the explosion, the splash onto the scene of the orchestra and piano of the first concerto, this one begins with a horn solo, answered by a “gentle, lapping, ascending arpeggio” in the piano, a much subtler, indeed very chamber-y way to begin such a monstrous piece of music. Triplets feature as these two instruments back-and-forth before woodwinds and strings join, a very large yet still seemingly transparent chamber-like passage, heavenly, broken almost instantly by a cadenza, followed by our first full-orchestra appearance. It’s regal, triumphant, celebratory, and strong, based on the opening figures in horn and piano.

It’s heavenly little well-executed passages like this (we’re not even two minutes into the work) that gives the listener a taste of the epic, that something detailed and delicious is to come. The contrasts from delicate, quiet, intimate chamber textures (of which Brahms was a master) to the sudden outburst of expression by the whole orchestra, almost a fanfare, is a wonderful, exciting way to begin this work.

If there were anyone in the world who knew Brahms and hadn’t heard this work, you’d just know it’s him. From the orchestral writing and the development of themes and economy of material to the thunderous, virtuosic, thick, satisfying piano writing, this first movement is of truly towering proportions. It’s such a joy to listen to, and despite the tender opening, it has some stormy, turbulent moments of its own.

You might be curious how we’ll wiggle back into the recapitulation, that is, how something so serene and heavenly can follow the turbulence and bigness of the development, but it does. The cadenza, of course, isn’t repeated, but the horn call followed by the piano’s response is as clear as day, and there’s some different material around it, as well as a coda with some quiet moments before ending with a bang.

That second-movement wispy scherzo isn’t. While still the shortest of the movements in the work, it’s nine-ish minutes of pianistic thunderstorm, and we can see this from the very beginning. It’s in 3/4 but marked allegro appassionato, played briskly enough to be conducted in one. There’s similar contrast in this movement. It opens in D minor, stormy, commanding and severe, but quickly brightens a bit. Sections of loud and soft, major and minor key (the central portion is in D major). Its speed and variation of sound make for a very filling, robust scherzo movement.

This opening passage with the contrast of loud/soft episodes is repeated, and we hear the organic development and shapeshifting again. Aside from use of all the words like stormy, turbulent, tumultuous (that you’d use to describe a sea), there is this feeling, listening and looking at the score, that one is in danger of drowning, but everything fits together. The pianist holds his own against the orchestra, the two work together and everyone keeps their heads above water. It’s exciting and moving. You can hear instantly the moments when we switch to a major key, like a breath of fresh air, and when we’re back in minor. It’s a movement very much in keeping with the first, I think.

After that, we’re in the slow movement, in 6/4, and with the key of B-flat major and the extensively featured cello solo, you might think this is the pleasant, peaceful repose in the work, and you’d be right, at least temporarily. The spotlight on a cello solo only adds to the expansiveness of this work. It somehow doesn’t have the head-scratching effect that Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto does, when the piano disappears in the second movement to give its spotlight to string soloists. It feels warm and welcome here, transparent, inviting, back to the chamber-like roots of the opening of the work. It’s only after the cello solo ends its long, lyrical phrase on a high B flat does the piano enter. There’s a central passage that’s certainly more lively, but not nearly as tumultuous as the rest of the music so far, and toward the end, our cello solo returns to round out a warm, welcoming lyrical movement. Wikipedia mentions things about returning in the wrong key and having to ‘make the jump’ to ‘land’ in the correct key to end the work, but this doesn’t (at least to my ear) add any tension to the movement as it finishes.

The finale is one of the shorter movements in the work, marked allegretto grazioso, “of five clearly distinguishable sections, which introduce and develop five different themes.” Would you expect any less? A quick summary of these sections is at this point in the article, with the first two themes presented first by piano and then the orchestra, then to be developed. The movement opens lightly, playfully, after the serenity and expansiveness of the previous movement and the scope of the first two movements. These five themes don’t represent individual sections; I find that slightly confusing about the article, dividing the five themes into multiple sections. All five themes are presented rather quickly, with the third and fourth in minor keys.

It’s not a theme-and-variations movement, nor does it appear to be a proper rondo, but imagine what Brahms can do with five themes, considering what he can do with only one or two very modest ones. There’s a feeling of creativeness, whimsy, imagination in this final movement, and even after all of that, there’s a coda “a new element, restating the main theme in triple rhythm (a device he used earlier to end his violin concerto) over a little march, first played by the piano, then answered by the orchestra, which trades themes with the soloist before the final chords.”

Brahms was not one for program ideas, thematic descriptions or plots in his pieces, but we can see here with a work like this…. that they’re not necessary. If there’s a story to be told, it is indeed a handsome one, a mature, well-built one, with moments of tenderness and comfort contrasted with strength and poise, turbulent, contrasting passages, but ending in a creative burst of imagination, all the while letting both the orchestra and the pianist have their moments. One gets the sense of a deep undercurrent of artistic genius from a work like this, something also apparent in his symphonies (I guess most of his works, really), something to marvel at and enjoy at any level.

I’ll have more insights (or emotion?) after seeing Hough perform it next month. Look for those in my review of that concert. As for next week, we’ll be doing something I am even more intimidated to write about than Brahms, so stay tuned for that.

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