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Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat Major Op.83

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat Major Op.83

The initial sketches for the Second Piano Concerto were probably made in 1878 when Brahms was living at Pressbaum, near Vienna. The concerto was completed within three years and probably first performed at Stuttgart on 22 November 1881, with the composer himself as a soloist, although there have been differing opinions concerning both the date and place of performance. It now seems fairly certain that the work received its premiere in the winter of 1881, and although Stanford claimed to have heard Brahms play the concerto in his native Hamburg in 1880, most authorities would cite Stuttgart as the actual venue of the first performance. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who was a great admirer of Brahms, had some revealing things to say about his playing of the B flat Concerto. 'His pianoforte playing', says Stanford, 'was not so much that of a finished pianist as of a composer who despised virtuosity. The skips, which are many and perilous, were accomplished regardless of accuracy….there were handfuls of wrong notes.' But he concludes his observations with these words: 'But never since I have heard a rendering of this Concerto so complete in its outlook or so big in its interpretation.'

The concerto met with a mixed reception after its premiere. Liszt, who had never been an ardent admirer of Brahms, found it 'rather grey in tone' and lacking 'effective glitter', whilst others found the vast symphonic proportions and the indivisible welding of the solo part with the orchestra, at variance with traditional concerto form. Then there were four movements, instead of the customary three, and in a letter to his friend, Elizabeth von Herzogenberg, Brahms jokingly referred to the additional movement as 'a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo'.

The concerto bears the dedication 'to my dear friend and teacher, Eduard Marsen', who not only taught Brahms the piano, but also stimulated his profound interest in the music of Bach, who remained a constant source of inspiration throughout his life.

ALLEGRO NON TROPPO: The concerto opens with one of the most celebrated and beautiful of all symphonic introductions. The first theme is quietly announced by a solo horn with an answering phrase from the piano. This is repeated in dialogue before the woodwind supply an important subsidiary theme. A cadenza-like passage for the soloist leads to the beginning of the exposition proper and a complete and stately version of the first theme from the full orchestra. A staccato figure in abrupt rhythm is then succeeded by a return of the first theme played marcato and the piano entering with a variant on the first bar of this subject, and finally elaborating on the theme itself. The development of this material paves the way for a new subject on the horns accompanied by violas. This subsidiary is re-introduced and treated in a new form by the soloist. The extended development section starts with the first theme and all the melodic and rhythmic ideas are duly re-introduced, interspersed with long stretches of elaborate passage work for the piano. The reprise begins with the first theme heard on the wind against a background of decoration from the piano and the coda forms a decrescendo, beginning with a long series of piano trills. The basis of this closing section is derived from the first theme and its subsidiary.

ALLEGRO APPASSIONATO: The main theme of this rather tough Scherzo and Trio is strong and firmly accentuated and is heard at the outset on the piano accompanied by horns, violas and double basses. A new melody tranquillo e dolce is later introduced by the violins and violas and developed at some length by the soloist. With a return of the opening, the first part of the movement comes to an end. The dance-like theme of the Trio is played alternately by violins and horns and continued with fuller scoring before a chromatic passage in octaves for the piano leads to a motiv derived from the second section of the Trio theme. In repeat of the Scherzo the procedure is reversed, the orchestra dealing with the material whilst the piano elaborates on the original orchestral accompaniment.

ANDANTE: This movement begins with an exquisite solo for the cello whose melody bears a passing resemblance to the Brahms song, 'Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer' (written in 1886). The theme is later taken up by the bassoons and violins before the soloist enters with a rhapsodic passage in which cross rhythms play an important part. A repeat of the opening theme heard in the orchestra leads to an episode introducing new material for the piano, supported by clarinet, which soon gives way to a reprise of the cello theme with ormentation from the piano.

ALLEGRETTO GRAZIOSO: This delightful Finale in free-rondo form contains three contrasted themes; the first, a sprightly melody for the piano accompanied by violas and then repeated by the violins, a more cantabile theme in thirds and sixths with Hungarian overtones, and a light-hearted almost playful motiv introduced by the soloist, with a pizzicato accompaniment from the strings. The three themes are worked out with abundant elaboration and strong contrast and the recapitulation is long and remarkably varied. But it is the first of the three themes on which the coda is based, bringing the concerto to its joyful conclusion.

© John Nicole

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