Classical Music Choice for Spring 2013
Johannes Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 in B-flat major
This masterful piece of music is one of my favourites and is one of his best known works. I am intrigued that this concerto is separated by a gap of 22 years from his first piano concerto. The premiere of the 2nd concerto was given in Budapest on November 9th, 1881 with Brahms, himself as soloist and was an immediate success.
What of the great man Brahms, before I put this wonderful concerto under the spotlight? He was born on May 7th, 1833 in a very poor quarter in Hamburg. The Brahms family lived in a tenement flat consisting of three rooms – a tiny kitchen, small living room and diminutive bedroom, nothing else. His parents were musical and father Jakob often earned money by playing contra-bass in dance halls and beer-gardens. Little Johannes, or Hannes as he was called, was surrounded from his formative years by a musical atmosphere and from the earliest age he desired to study music. When Johannes was 7 years old, his father took him to Otto Cossel to arrange for him to have pianoforte lessons. “Herr Cossel, said Jakob Brahms, I wish my son to become your pupil; he wants so much to learn to play the piano. When he can play as well as you do it will be enough.” Wonderful stuff! Hannes was eager and very quick to learn. He had a wonderful memory and made very rapid progress. When he was only 10 years old a concert was arranged for him, at which he playedchamber music with several of the older musicians of Hamburg and it was a success both financially and artistically. Moving on in time; after gaining some much needed strength by living temporarily in the country, his development as a fine musician was sealed. In disposition Brahms was kindly and sincere and when young he was merry and light of heart. During his developing years he was to meet up with the great Joachim, the reigning violinist of his time and they would become great friends with the latter first performing his epic Violin Concerto in 1879. He was also greatly influenced by his friendship with Schumann who spoke of him as “the young eagle-one of the elect”. Johannes was to become very close to Clara Schumann and they often performed together with Joachim. His more intense activities as a prolific composer coincided with his return to Hamburg and then finally settling in Vienna where he became one of the outstanding musicians of the city. His flat there consisted of three small rooms, the largest of which contained his grand piano, writing table and a sofa with another table in front of it. It was not until about 1880 that he grew his long, heavy beard. He made many happy concert tours and was always received with great honour. He conducted his own works and played his piano concerto in D minor. He loved to take a vacation in Ischl, Austria and would compose with ease in these relaxing surroundings. Brahms was profoundly shaken by the death of Clara Schumann in 1896 and soon fell ill, at this time he greatly appreciated the need of close friends. Despite his rapid failing, every evening he would sit at the piano and improvise for half an hour and when fatigue overcame him he would remain looking out of the window and dreaming till long after darkness had fallen. Gradually he grew weaker and his spirit found release on April 3rd, 1897.
The city of Vienna, wishing to do honour to the great composer made an offer to his relatives of the site of a grave where Brahms might lie. He found a resting-place near Beethoven and Mozart, the two masters whom he had so greatly loved. Later, memorial tablets were placed above the doors of the house of his birth in Hamburg as well as his residences in Vienna, Ischl and Thun.
With this little introduction, I hope that readers will have a deeper appreciation for his music and particularly ponder his background whilst listening to the mighty second piano concerto.
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major Perhaps one of the first observations regarding this piece is that, rather than the typical three movements employed in the Classical and Romantic periods, four movements are used,
1.Allegro non troppo
The first movement is introduced with a horn solo and the piano interceding. I am always on the lookout for a cadenza and with this concerto rather unusually it appears at the onset where the woodwind instruments introduce a small motif before the cadenza. The full orchestra repeats the theme after which the piano continues to further develop this theme. I find this one of the most engaging movements of any classical composition.
The second movement opens with a piano solo and is a tumultuous movement with some stormy developments of the theme accompanied by some delightful quiet pieces.
The third movement is quite sensational and very famous and is unusual in utilizing an extensive cello solo. How very beautiful and effective it is.
The final movement consists of five clear sections and significantly in the fourth, Brahms presents a new element in the form of a little march, first played by the piano and then the orchestra comes in. Listen out for the different moods. He loved folk music as listeners will note in this movement.
Typical performances last around 50 minutes and what a very special experience this listening is. It is said that the work was inspired by a holiday Brahms took in Italy.
To enjoy this great concerto one must listen to one of the very best performances. There are a number of outstanding interpretations and the one that still stands out as the best is performed by Emil Gilels.
Emil Gilels with Eugen Jochum and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon – amazon.co.uk
I personally have great affection for the performance by Gerhard Oppitz and Sir Colin Davis with the Symphonieorchestra des Bayrischen Rundfunks on the RCA Red Seal label. Look out for this one.