JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897) Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1881)

i. Allegro non troppo

ii. Allegro appassionato

iii. Andante

iv. Allegretto grazioso

Compared with some of the great masters Brahms as a composer was something of a late-developer. An accomplished pianist from a very early age and well-known in Hamburg, he nevertheless left it until 1853 to compose his first published compositions, the first two Piano Sonatas, when he was at the height of his friendship with Schumann and his secret love for Schumann’s wife Clara ( which was to remain, unrequited, until his death).

Most of his early compositions centred round the piano, written for himself of course, and the piano remained central to him for the whole of his composing life, his canon of works amounting to one of the major contributions in the history of composition.

His natural caution in terms of orchestral works, however, is well-known; conscious that he was regarded as the natural successor to Beethoven, and having flexed his muscles in 1858 with the elemental First Piano Concerto in D minor, he then, famously, took nearly twenty years, until 1876, to complete his First Symphony. The lyrical Second Symphony and Violin Concerto followed fairly rapidly, by which time he had confidently thrown off the Beethovenian yoke and matured into one of the great romantic masters, powerful yet sensitive, serious yet capable of wit and lightheartedness, all characteristics which appear in the Second Piano Concerto.  

The B flat major Piano Concerto appeared some twenty three years after the D minor, and immediately took its place as one of the greatest of all piano concertos. Although there had been concertos with four movements, including those termed Concerti Symphonique by the virtuoso pianist Henri Litolff, and there would later be other even larger works, including that by Busoni lasting over an hour, Brahms’s B flat was itself a concerto of well-and-truly symphonic proportions.

Written over a three-year period from 1878, begun on a break from composing the Violin Concerto and finished in Pressbaum, the work was dedicated affectionately to his teacher Edward Marxsen. Having initially wondered about adding a scherzo to the D minor concerto and then, even more unusually, to the violin concerto, this time he really took the plunge and added a second movement to the usual three, which combines power and mystery. He was desperately proud of the size of the finished work and having in 1877 teased his friends that the gloriously genial Second Symphony was going to be printed on black-edged paper, he now, four years later, wrote to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg about the concerto saying: ‘I don’t mind telling you that I have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’.

Brahms himself was the soloist at the work’s triumphant premiere in Budapest on 9 November 1881, and it rapidly became a calling-card for its composer/soloist all over Europe, except, sadly, Britain – Brahms couldn’t be persuaded to cross the English Channel. These days it seems to have become customary to say that the B flat is not a virtuoso concerto, perhaps due to the solo piano’s symphonic integration with the orchestra, but in 2006 the great American pianist Emanuel Ax, who would in 2011 give magisterial performances of both concertos on successive evenings at the BBC Proms, wrote: Like all the movements of the concerto the first movement is terrifyingly difficult….certainly none of us could ask for anything harder!’

A solo horn introduces the first theme of the opening movement, quietly suggesting the heroic nature of the movement. Strings answer suavely, then the piano announces its presence, stormily signalling the orchestral exposition of the main themes. A muscular dialogue between piano and orchestra ensues – although not without its moments of delicacy – drawn on a massive canvas lasting nearly twenty minutes and culminating in a dynamic coda. It seems amazing that Brahms could achieve such a massive concept without including trombones or tuba in this or the other three movements..

As if the power of all this were not enough, the piano immediately launches into the scherzo, the lower strings adding still greater force to the proceedings with urgent syncopation. After a short while a second theme arrives, at first mysterious and remote but later just as trenchant as the opening theme. A change of gear introduces a trio section which is full of rhetoric, before the piano calms proceedings down. The scherzo returns, once again leading to a powerful coda.

From here the work begins to reduce in scale, the Andante introducing a heartfelt solo cello to counterbalance the piano, which creates an ambience almost like chamber music. Indeed the extended cello solo begins the movement, its comforting, song-like line accompanied initially by strings and later woodwind and horns in restrained cross-rhythms. As is often the case with Brahms, the time signature, here 6/4, feels very ambiguous. The piano eases in to ruminate on the cello solo, and the movement rises to a height, the cello theme now strident, with stormy trills in the solo part. Soon the cello returns, now heightened in tenor clef, with the piano commenting, and the movement winds its way to a peaceful conclusion. It is thought that Brahms’s cello solo was influenced by a similar passage in the Romanze of the A minor Piano Concerto, Op 7, composed by Clara Schumann herself, a work which one hopes is due for a resurgence.

One now might expect a large-scale finale, but the piano sets us off by itself with the first theme which is playful and light-hearted, joined shortly by the orchestra in similar vein. Yes, the tone becomes a little more stormy, but very shortly the romantic and graceful second theme arrives, to be commented upon by the piano often in filigree textures. The piano introduces a high-spirited third theme and the orchestra joins in with a smile – is this really the Brahms who was jealous of his protégé Dvorak’s profusion of invention? At length the piano subsides into reflection for a moment before launching into the high-spirited coda, which brings the work to a satisfyingly triumphant conclusion.

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