Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat

The 2nd piano concerto by Johannes Brahms stands in marked contrast to his first piano concerto, written 22 years previously, not least of all because while the first piano concerto was not received very well (it had even been hissed at some of the first performances) the second was an immediate success.  Hans von Bülow, von Bülow and the orchestra at Meiningin. Von Bülow praised the work to Franz Liszt, who requested a score and wrote to Brahms saying:

“At first reading this work seemed to me a little gray in tone; I have, however, come gradually to understand it. It possesses the pregnant character of a distinguished work of art, in which thought and feeling move in noble harmony.

Brahms went on tour with the concerto after the premiere in Budapest in 1881 as soloist in 12 different European cities to great acclaim.

I. Allegro non troppo - The concerto begins with a theme for solo horn, which is answered by the piano. The horn continues the theme, and the piano answers this time with a cadenza, after which the exposition begins with the horn theme played by the full orchestra. The themes pour forth from the orchestra in an embarrassment of riches, and to list them all would take a very detailed analysis, but the artistry and skill of Brahms never lets the music become episodic. Every theme has a natural flow into the next.  The development section begins with an impassioned restatement of the horn theme, whereupon the music subsides to a calmer version of it. The recapitulation has the return of themes as well as the addition of a few more as it makes its way to a grand ending to the movement with a version of the horn theme.

II. Allegro appasionato - It is this movement that is the most unique of the concerto, and although Brahms called it ‘a little wisp of a scherzo’ it is anything but.  It is the only movement of the concerto not written in B-flat major, but in D minor. Unlike traditional scherzo form of scherzo-trio-scherzo, it is in sonata form with what is normally the trio section being part of the development of the movement.  The scherzo is stated by the piano and orchestra and then it is developed in stormy music until the trio D major section is inserted. The trio is repeated and the development continues until the scherzo reappears. This leads to a brilliant coda and the music comes to a noisy close.

III. Andante - A solo cello begins the movement by stating the main theme in B-flat major.  The orchestra takes the theme over before the cello returns. After a short dialogue between the solo cello and oboe, the piano enters with a gentle theme of its own.  This theme turns impassioned as pieces of the initial theme are heard. Chains of trills are played by the piano that leads to an appearance of the main theme in a minor key. Then, clarinets accompany a simple piano part, which leads to strings accompanying the soloist in quiet repose before the main theme appears again in the cello. The piano, cello and oboe slowly lead to the closing of the movement.

IV. Allegretto grazioso - Un poco più presto - A movement that is deceptively lighthearted in feeling. Once again there are themes galore, and Brahms once again blends them with a perfect sense of individuality but not at the expense of the whole.  The concerto ends in a happy mood in B-flat major. 

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