Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Symphony No 2 in D Major, op 73 (1877)

i.   Allegro non troppo

ii.  Adagio non troppo

iii. Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) — Presto ma non assai —Tempo 1

iv.  Allegro con spirito

There is unquestionably a feeling of release in Brahms’s D major Symphony. After having laboured with the First Symphony for some fifteen years encumbered by the burden of being perceived as Beethoven’s successor, he completed the Second only a year later, almost as if floodgates had been opened. The D major is consequently a wonderful complement to the First in C minor; where that great work ends having achieved a blaze of light after its dark striving, rather in the manner of Beethoven’s Fifth, the Second opens in a glow of autumnal sunshine. Indeed the work was begun on his summer holiday in 1877 at Portschach on Lake Worth, one of his favourite and most inspirational locations — the Violin Concerto Op 77 and the G major Violin Sonata Op 78 were to emerge from there in 1878, both in similar vein to Op 73 — and, excepting the more tormented moments of the slow movement, it sounds like the work of one at ease with himself at long last. In fact the journey from conception to first performance took only some four months, the first performance taking place at the Musikverein in Vienna on 30 December under Hans Richter, one of the composer’s most dedicated advocates. Not one normally much given to having fun, Brahms was so consumed with euphoria at having completed such a good-humoured work so easily that he teased his friends; his publisher Simrock was told that the symphony was ‘so melancholy you won’t be able to listen to it’, and after its first performance he told a friend, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, who had not been able to attend: ‘The musicians play my music with black armbands because it sounds so mournful. It will be printed on black-edged paper.’

During Brahms’s lifetime the size of orchestral string sections increased considerably, gradually developing the tradition of large-size Brahms performances, whilst woodwind and brass sections retained one player to a part; many magnificent performances on this scale have been given, even with double woodwind, sometimes occasioning criticism of Brahms’s ‘thick’ scoring, but the composer’s own instinct was for smaller forces. Although he himself was constrained to conduct the Second Symphony in 1878 with no less than twenty five first violins, given the choice he opted for much smaller sections, his favourite orchestra, the Meiningen Court Orchestra, having a string section of only 9, 9, 4, 4, 4 (firsts to basses). The M50 is pleased therefore to be giving its performance tonight in relatively authentic scale. Indeed the luminosity of much of the scoring in the Second Symphony is enhanced by the use of smaller sections.

The first movement opens serenely with a three-note figure (D, C#, D) in the cellos and basses which will pervade the work in various guises, and is explored in depth in the first movement development section; at the very opening it is answered by poised horns then the flute, then upper strings, before the first violins introduce a beautiful cantabile (singing) melody based on the initial motif. This leads into more strident, angular material with ascending leaps and Brahms’s characteristically muscular syncopation, sometimes as part of the melody, sometimes driving underneath. As always in Brahms the middle parts, violin II, viola, clarinet, horns and others, are often given great importance as the propulsive force. The second subject, sung by cellos and violas, is one of Brahms’s most serene inspirations. The crisis in the development sets the three notes of the motif in insistent syncopation within the ¾ time signature, and there is also a fugal passage based on the flute’s answering phrase from earlier. There is strident work for trombones, much more fully used in this work than in the First. The recap, when it comes, leads to a genial coda with playful staccato (strings pizzicato) answered by the horns recalling their very first entry earlier.

The darker Adagio is in the key of B major, and fails to fall into an accepted structure; its complexity makes it much harder work than the first movement. The opening echoes to a degree the First Symphony’s tortured Introduction, but reversed; the top line begins with cellos striving downwards, whilst the two bassoons’ counter—subject underneath aspires upwards to meet them. This section continues lyrically, but there is always an undercurrent of tension. Moving imperceptibly into 12/8 instead of 4/4 Brahms fosters a more gently lilting and somewhat wistful atmosphere with the woodwind, but each time the 4/4 returns the mood blackens, the first episode descending into true sturm und drang (‘storm and stress’ — a concept explored by composers such as Haydn in the late eighteenth century). As the movement progresses subject and counter—subject are used with the utmost skill. Eventually after its difficult journey the movement ends in peace.

The third movement, in G, lightens both the mood and the scoring. The pastoral opening theme, again with the initial semitones seminal, is introduced by oboe above plucked cellos, but once again there is a change of metre, one beat of the opening 3/4 ingeniously changing into a whole bar of 2/4, and the oboe’s melody transformed into a chattering motif for strings, then woodwind as a variant. Back in 3 the pastoral oboe theme becomes more luscious, but this is swept away by the final variant, Presto in 3/8, in which the theme represented in the backwards, quaver/crotchet rhythm actually inverts the shape of the oboe’s original phrase. The movement ends in pastoral stillness.

The finale, beginning with the D, C#, D motif again, proceeds in a tingling pianissimo for many bars until it springs to joyous life, eventually leading to a suavely noble theme not unlike that of the last movement of the First Symphony. Muscularity increases and a complete surprise ensues — Brahms turns into a Scotsman, introducing a passage of Scotch Snaps almost as if he were writing a Strathspey. During the development the initial motif is transformed into a triplet figure in a mood of temporary languor; this returns later, gradually transmuting into syncopations which propel us into the triumphant coda, with thrilling brass, bringing the work to a conclusion as joyful as Brahms was ever to write.

Notes by HDJ

Hits: 12