Friday, April 24, 2020

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini

Sergei Rachmaninoff initially wanted to be a composer, but he had to rely on his abilities as a pianist  to make a living after he left Russia. The revolution of 1917 saw the loss of Rachmaninoff's estate (he was a member of the bourgeoisie), and his way to make a living. He was 44 years old when he left his native country in late 1917 and he never went back.

In 1921 he immigrated to the United States and toured extensively as piano soloist and conductor. He completed only six compositions between 1918 and 1943, the year of his death. His home in the U.S. reflected his homesickness for his native Russia, as the household practiced Russian customs and had Russian servants. He did build a vacation home on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland where he spent his summers. It was there that he wrote Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini in 1934.

 Rachmaninoff himself was the pianist at the premiere of the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conductor. Rachmaninoff admitted the work was very difficult and that he had to practice it diligently. Paganini's 24th Caprice For Solo Violin is the theme used for the variations, a theme used for other sets of variations by Liszt, Brahms, and other composers. 

Coincidentally (or not) Rachmaninoff writes 24 variations on the theme, the same number as Brahms. The work is played non-stop, but the variations are arranged in three groups that roughly coincide with the usual fast-slow-fast movement plan of a conventional piano concerto.

Introduction : Allegro vivace - A nine bar introduction that uses a fragment of the theme.

Variation 1 (Precedente) - Instead of playing the theme itself, Rachmaninoff plays the first variation on it. Actually a variation on the bass of the theme, as Beethoven did in the last movement of the Third Symphony ‘Eroioca’.

Theme -  The theme is first heard in the strings as the soloist plays a simple outline of the harmony in A minor.  

Variation 2 - It is the piano’s turn to state the theme at the beginning of this variation. The piano then outlines the theme in arpeggios as woodwinds, horn and strings trade off playing fragments of it.

Variation 3 - The piano plays a simple counter melody while the woodwinds and strings chatter amongst themselves.

Variation 4: Piu vivo -  The tempo increases slightly, the piano has each hand in turn take up a fragment of the theme as an accompaniment to the strings and single woodwinds.

Variation 5 - Alternating chords in the piano play chords that soon lead up to a few sparse octaves and snatches of the theme played an octave apart in each hand.

Variation 6 - A quiet variation that has the piano play a part of the theme, and a cadenza-like ritard that ends the phrase. The piano part becomes slightly more complex and louder, and then returns to the quiet of the beginning.

Variation 7 : Meno mosso, a tempo moderato -  While a solo bassoon plays the theme, the piano quotes the ancient plainchant Dies Irae, something of a fixation for Rachmaninoff as it appears in other of his compositions.

Variation 8 : Tempo I - The music grows more intense, the piano part more complex as the variation progresses.

Variation 9 -  Violins and violas are instructed to play col legno, with the wood of the bow. The strange clicking sounds that result are played in triplets with the rest of the orchestra that have the first beat in the triplet as a rest, thus giving an off the beat feel to the music. The piano plays the theme in eighth notes separated by an eight rest, which further adds to a disquieting rhythmic pattern. The dynamic range of the variation stays mostly on the quiet side. All of it adds up to appropriate music after the ‘Day Of Wrath’ of the Dies Irae appearance, as strings played col legno have been compared to the rattling of bones.

Variation 10 - The Dies Irae returns, and the music slowly reaches a quiet conclusion to the variation. From the beginning of the work to the end of the 10th variation has all been in the key of A minor, and these variations have been considered representing the first movement of a concerto.  

Variation 11 : Moderato - This variation remains in A minor, and is considered to be the start of the slow movement of a concerto.  The tempo has slowed; the mood is more melancholy than fierce. The piano weaves chromatic runs and octaves as the orchestra adds discreet accompaniment. The piano takes off on a fortissimo run of arpeggios and is accompanied by glissandos on the harp, after which the piano winds down and plays a solo.  

Variation 12: Tempo did Minuet to - This variation is in D minor, and as indicated is in the tempo of a minuet - a slow minuet.  The orchestration is very sparse with alternating solos for clarinet and horn, with accompaniment by the harp.

Variation 13 : Allegro - Still in D minor, the music picks up the pace and volume as the strings play the theme while the piano hammers out chords.

Variation 14 - The key shifts to F major, the volume increases, and the piano takes a rest while the orchestra plays the varied theme. When the soloist does enter, it mostly at an accompaniment level.

Variation 15 : Piu vivo scherzando -  The piano plays a rapid, brilliant solo in F major before the orchestra joins in. The piano keeps up its virtuosity until the variation ends with a quiet chord in the piano.

Variation 16 : Allegretto - The key changes to B-flat minor as muted violins and violas softly begin the movement. The oboe and cor anglaise take up the theme while the piano plays a harmonic counter theme.  A solo violin plays while the piano changes to a short chromatic run. After the dialogue between piano and violin, the variation returns to the beginning as the violins lead to the next variation.

Variation 17 -  The piano continues in B-flat minor as it plays slow arpeggios to accompaniment by woodwinds with the violins and violas punctuating with tremolos. The piano makes a wonderful modulation along with the cellos to the next variation.

Variation 18 : Andante cantabile -  The piano begins in D-flat major with the variation that is known all by itself, a variant of the original theme where the 4-note motive of the theme is inverted.  This variation not only shows Rachmaninoff’s mastery of the piano and orchestration, but also shows his gift for melody. The piano plays the variant by itself until the strings take it up. It then plays accompanying chords. The music keeps building until upon the third repetition of the inversion the volume, passion (and rubato) increase as the piano continues to accompany with chords. The music slowly begins to grow quiet until the piano ends the variation pianissimo. The end of this variation suggests the end of the slow movement of the piano concerto.

Variation 19 : A tempo vivace -  The next variation begins with 4 bars of pizzicato strings, and it is back in the key of A minor. The soloist enters and plays in eight note triplet arpeggios that are marked quasi pizzicato.  

Variation 20 : Un poco piu vivo -  The music increases in tempo as the strings race in sixteenth note figures. The soloist skips around the keyboard in single notes for each hand and finally switches to octaves. Clarinets and flutes join in with the running sixteenth notes as the variation builds to a crescendo and then back to quiet at the end.

Variation 21 : Un poco piu vivo - The piano plays in triplets in each hand as the orchestra punctuates the harmony. The music keeps on building in intensity.

Variation 22 : Un poco piu vivo (alla breve) - The piano plays short, clipped chords with an indication of marziale. The accompaniment is light to begin with, but as the soloist grows in volume and intensity, more instruments start to play. The music builds to tremendous climax, after which the piano plays triplets in each hand. The triplets become sixteenth note arpeggios. Soloist and orchestra trade off statements in triplets until the climax is reached. The soloist plays a cadenza that leads to the next variation.

Variation 23 -  The piano plays the theme in A-flat minor (!) before the strings bring it back to A minor.  The soloist has another cadenza and that leads to the finale.

Variation 24 : A tempo un poco meno mosso - The tempo slows slightly as the piano plays another theme variant to a light accompaniment.  Piano and orchestra grow more involved until a final loud appearance of Dies Irae is heard in the brass. The piano is all but drowned out by the orchestra as things are leading up to a big finish that includes a double glissando by the soloist. The volume is fortissimo, the music slips into the key of A major, but after one last outburst, the music ends with the piano quoting the opening of the original theme’s first notes quietly with an equally quiet accompaniment.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 1

 Niccolo Paganini wrote his first violin concerto in 1817-1818 and the solo part shows that his dazzling technique was already in evidence. The audiences marveled at his technique and the new effects of violin playing he had developed.

Paganini was very secretive about his 'tricks of the trade' and didn't include the part for solo violin with the score. When he would play the concerto, only the orchestral parts would be given to the appropriate players and there was many times no rehearsal of the work. One of the tricks he used in the concerto was that the orchestra parts were written in E-flat major while his solo part was written in D major with his solo violin mistuned a semitone higher so that he was actually playing in E-flat. All of that is pretty confusing for the average listener, but in simple terms this trick allowed Paganini to play effects in E-flat that he couldn't with an ordinary tuning and it also helped the violin to be in a greater tonal contrast with the orchestra.

The concerto shows the influence of Italian Opera of Paganini's time, specifically Rossini's operas and especially the Bel Canto style of singing in them. Paganini was accused of being less than a serious musician by some in his day for his tricks and going out of his way to please the crowd, but the seriousness of his intentions with this first concerto shows that he was, above everything else, a very skilled and passionate musician. 

I. Allegro maestoso - The concerto begins with the orchestra calling the listener to attention with loud chords, and then the themes are presented in the usual form of an exposition in sonata form. The orchestra plays for a relatively long time before the soloist enters, and the first theme is a rhythmic one that is highlighted by drums, brass and cymbals.  The soloist enters and takes up the themes and expands upon them considerably in form and ornament, while also adding new material.  There is another section for orchestra alone, which leads to the soloist joining the orchestra in loud chords as the beginning of the movement. The second theme is given a melancholy variation in the development section in a minor key, with many examples of the soloist playing alone using some of the techniques of violin playing that Paganini had devised and made famous.  The recapitulation has the soloist displaying the themes with more technical wizardry until a cadenza is played. After more razzle-dazzle from the soloist in the cadenza, the orchestra returns and closes out the movement with the themes that opened it.

II. Adagio espressivo - the second movement shows the depth of feeling and how dramatic Paganini could be in his music. The orchestra plays a prelude for the entrance of the soloist, who plays an uncomplicated tune to pizzicato and bassoon accompaniment.  It is like listening to a mini-dramatic opera, with not any flashes and trickery of technique (at least not obvious ones). Paganini makes the violin sing like an opera singer.  The movement reaches a climax, and then the soloist returns to the long aria it is playing, with the orchestra giving a discreet accompaniment. The music grows in loudness as the music dwells in a major key for a section. This doesn’t last very long before the music turns to the minor again.  The brass plays loud chords that slowly grow quiet while the soloist gives ad answers to it. But at the very last, the music ends in a major key.

III. Rondo - Allegro spiritoso - The fireworks come back in the rondo finale as Paganini's bow ricochets off the violin strings as the soloist plays the theme. The theme is repeated to set it in the ear before new material is introduced. The first episode showcases the soloist in the higher register of the instrument in chords in harmonics. The movement is filled with impressive techniques as the rondo theme is played between episodes of new material. A short cadenza is played, and then soloist and orchestra approach the loud ending. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Mendelssohn - Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor

 Felix Mendelssohn musical precociousness was apparently comparable to Mozart's, but unlike Mozart he was fortunate enough to be born into a family that was financially well off . His parents recognized his musical gifts early on and hired the best teachers of the time to give him private lessons.  By the time Felix was fourteen he had written 12 symphonies for strings and many other compositions. The Mendelssohn household in Berlin held private concerts in their home every Sunday morning. There was a private orchestra of musicians that knew the family and participated in the concerts where Felix's music was heard.

Some of Mendelssohn's most well known works were written when he was still a teenager. His String Octet when he was sixteen, the Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was seventeen.  His style seems to have developed quite early, and stayed relatively unchanged during his short life.

His Piano Concerto No. 1 was written in 1830 when he was 21 years old. He played the premiere in Munich in a concert that also included his Symphony No. 1Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream and some improvisations at the keyboard.  Mendelssohn said he had composed the concerto in only a few days and didn’t have a very high opinion of it:

"I wrote it in but a few days and almost carelessly; nonetheless, it always pleased people the most, though me very little.”

Like Franz Liszt, Mendelssohn experimented with linking movements together in this concerto, as there is no formal pause between movements. But there is no doubt the concerto is in three distinct sections. 

I. Molto allegro con fuoco -The concerto begins with a few bars of introduction by the orchestra, and then the piano enters with a bravura display. Many piano concertos of the time opened with a long orchestra introduction of themes before the piano enters. There are a few notable exceptions, such as Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 and Beethoven's 4th and 5th Piano Concertos. These examples have the piano enter with a brief statement or comment, and then it remains silent until the end of the orchestral introduction. Mendelssohn has the piano enter early also, but it doesn't remain silent. It continues to play, and introduces the themes while the orchestra comments on them later.  This makes Mendelssohn's concertos one of the first truly Romantic concertos that broke with tradition.

Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann helped make the concerto very popular in its day. With the quick tempo and a piano part bristling with arpeggios, scales, and octaves, the piano is the star and leader of the ensemble as much of the thematic development is taken up by the piano. The orchestra plays a secondary role, but adds much color and balance to the movement. Mendelssohn manages to create a movement full of fire and passion that retains elegance as well. The movement segues without a break to the next movement.

II. Andante - The fiery first movement segues into a gentle andante, one of Mendelssohn's songs without words, in E major. This movement is slow, with a middle section that changes key for contrast. The initial theme is slightly varied when it returns to end the movement.

III. Presto - Molto allegro e vivace - A fanfare for brass leads into the finale, a quicksilver rondo where the piano ripples its way through episodes and the refrain of the theme. The soloist's fingers scamper over the keys in music that Mendelssohn intends to be played very fast by the tempo designations. Towards the end of the movement, snippets of themes from the first movement appear, and the movement grows to a brilliant conclusion.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Liszt - Totentanz (Dance Of Death)

 Franz Liszt began planning the work as early as 1838 after he saw The Triumph Of Death fresco by Francesco Traini in the Campo Santo in Pisa, Italy. But until he dedicated himself to composing over traveling Europe as the most famous virtuoso of his day, the first version was not completed until 1853.  Liszt revisited the work in 1859 and completed the 2nd version, the version most often heard, in 1864.

The Romantic era in general had a certain amount of interest in the subject of death, but Liszt took it even farther. He composed a number of pieces that dwelled on the subject to the point of morbidity.

Totendanz is a set of variations (or as Liszt put it, a paraphrase) on the Gregorian chant Dies Irae, or day of wrath, words that were taken from the Bible that depicted the day of final judgement. The original Latin text and music for Dies Irae date back to the 13th century. The chant is most frequently heard in the Catholic Requiem Mass, and Liszt is just one of many composers that used the melody in their compositions.
The Triumph Of Death fresco by Francesco Traini

Opening theme ‘Dies irae - The music begins with the soloist playing deep in the bass of the piano in marked tone clusters while the orchestra plays the theme.  The piano then plays the first of three cadenzas that span the compass of the keyboard with the orchestra contributes short chords after each. The orchestra then takes up the theme while the piano hammers out chords in the treble range of the piano in rapid tempo that makes it sound like a huge 8-note tremolo. A climax is reached and the music grows quiet. The piano has a solo that leads to -

Variation I (Allegro moderato) - The bassoon and violas play a variant of the melody, and the piano repeats it. Clarinets and bassoon play the second part of the melody and the piano repeats it, and leads to -

Variation II - The left hand of the piano plays a variant of the theme low in the bass as the right hand plays runs higher in the bass. A horn and pizzicato strings add to the texture.  The next part of the variation has piano glissandos in the right hand, the bass plays a dotted rhythm while trumpets and low strings are added. The drama increases as the piano plays glissandos in both hands as the woodwinds and strings lend accompaniment. This leads to -

Variation III (Molto vivace) - The soloist goes back to the deep bass for an agitated section that eventually climbs into the high treble. A full stop comes upon a D minor chord that leads to -

Variation IV (Lento) - For piano solo, this gentle canon gives some rest after the preceding drama. After it has played out, a cadenza in B major (the only section of any length in a major key in the piece) gives repose. The music then goes back to the minor with a solo clarinet playing a simple variant of the melody with a light piano accompaniment.  Another section of transformation begins abruptly with the piano increasing the tempo to presto, with octaves in each hand leading to -

Variation V (Vivace) - The first part of the theme is rendered contrapuntally by solo piano in a fugue with repeated notes. The orchestra joins the soloist and the music goes somewhat a field to different keys. There is a section of the piano part that has the directive strepitoso, meaning clamorous, impetuous. The section ends in a long cadenza for the soloist and leads to -

Variation VI (Semper allegro (ma non troppo)) - This is a mini-set of variations itself.
1.            The horns play a figure in triplets while the orchestra, minus the other brass, accompany.
2.            The piano enters and plays a variant with pizzicato low strings, flute and triangle.  
3.            Oboes, piano, strings, and the triangle play a variant.
4.            The piano imitates hands as the woodwinds and strings fill out the harmonies.
5.            The figure is played in the bass of the piano with chords in the right hand. Woodwinds fill in harmonies while the strings play col legno.
6.            The piano plays a variant that is marked piacevole that is punctuated by chromatic runs played by both hands a third apart that venture high into the treble.
7.            The piano accompanies with chords and octave runs while the orchestra plays another variant.

This mini-set of variants ends when there is another cadenza that has the Dies Irate played low in the bass while a tremendous minor scale is played that covers the rest of the keyboard.  The glissandos appear again, as the music leads up to a raucous closing. There is no written part for the piano in the score, but it is not out of place for a soloist to play along with the orchestra. There is a tradition for the soloist to play in contrary motion to the orchestra with the final chromatic run and final chords.

The modern way in which Liszt treated the piano in the middle of the 19th century was ahead of its time. His percussive treatment of the instrument was a big influence on a 20th century fellow Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Kalkbrenner - Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

Friedrich Kalkbrenner is a name run across whenever early 19th century pianists are discussed. He was German, evidently a charismatic performer as well as a teacher, writer, and piano manufacturer. He lived most of his life outside of Germany, in England and France. He wrote a method of piano playing that was popular until the end of the 19th century.

Chopin fell under his spell when he first came to Paris in 1830, and came close to taking lessons with him. Kalkbrenner told Chopin he would have to study for three years and give up performing during that time.  This and the fact that Mendelssohn told Chopin it would be a mistake to study with Kalkbrenner because he already played better than he did, persuaded Chopin to decline.

He was a child prodigy; playing a Haydn concerto by the time he was eight. He also could speak four languages by that time. He grew to be a very good businessman as well as musician, for he was one of the very few piano virtuosos of the time to amass a large fortune.  While in London he used a contraption called the chiroplast to restrict hand movements while practicing the piano, and although he didn't invent the machine his business sense helped him to market it and it became a popular item. He teamed up with the inventor of the machine and opened a piano school that utilized the machine.

When on tour in 1823-1824 in Austria and Germany he was wildly popular.  He settled in Paris in 1825 as a teacher and piano manufacturer. He was at the apex of his popularity about 1836, after which his fame slowly decreased. By then he was quite wealthy, and as he was known for his vain snobbery he entertained and moved in the higher circles of Parisian society until his death from cholera in 1849.

I. Allegro Maestoso - There are many ways composers have dealt with the concerto form. Some concertos are balanced between orchestra and soloist. Others are more like symphonies for piano and orchestra (with some named as such), and many concertos were virtuoso display pieces for the soloist with the orchestra playing a decidedly secondary role. It is to this former category that Kalkbrenner’s concerto belongs. Once the soloist enters, there is hardly a bar where it can’t be heard in chords, runs of double notes, and all other types of virtuoso device. As Kalkbrenner wrote all his concertos for his own benefit as a performer, his technique was truly admirable, if not always his musical taste.

His first piano concerto, written 1823, begins with the orchestra playing an exposition before the soloist enters and elaborates on the material in usual double exposition concerto form. With the piano in the forefront as the orchestra accompanying with washes of color, there is reason to believe that Chopin used Kalkbrenner’s concertos as models for his own. In some aspects they are similar, but for actual musical content, Chopin wins the prize.  But Kalkbrenner’s music has a period charm to it.

II. Adagio di molto - The second movement has the piano remaining in the spotlight as it plays the theme simply to start, then gets more and more with runs in thirds and more virtuosity, especially in the upper range of the piano.

III. Rondo - Vivace - The third movement is a sprightly rondo with theme thrown out by the piano with the orchestra keeping to an accompanying role. Once again, the piano part glistens and dazzles. With his virtuoso technique and flare for putting the piano in its best light, it is no wonder Kalkbrenner was so popular. But as with most music that was popular, it soon fell out of fashion.  With the recent interest in historical performance and lesser-known composers, Kalkbrenner has been rediscovered, and his spot in the history and evolution of piano technique are assured.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Dvořák - Cello Concerto

 In 19th century musical life, the region of Germany and Austria reigned supreme.  For those ambitious enough to want international recognition as a composer, the best way was to be acknowledged in Germany. All of the master composers of the 19th century had connections with Germany, if not by birth by other connections such as studying there, living there, or knowing the right people there.

Fortunately for many composers, there were famous men of the time that helped otherwise unknown composers get their foot in the door. Perhaps the most magnanimous was Liszt, who met, encouraged and promoted many younger composers of his time. Liszt used his fame (and in many cases his fortune) to help many composers, the most famous being Wagner.  One name that is not thought of as a promoter of another composer's works is Johannes Brahms.

The most prevalent impression of Brahms is an acerbic bachelor that had little use for any of his contemporaries, especially the leaders and followers of the 'New Music' movement led by Liszt and Wagner. Even when Brahms had something good to say about someone else, as a contemporary once said of him, "His compliments sting like salt in the eyes." Brahms once visited an acquaintance that was a minor composer. Brahms got there and saw the man playing outside with his children. His wife apologized, saying that her husband composed so much that he had little time to stop. Brahms replied, "Thank God, it should happen more often."

Brahms could be a cantankerous personality, and there's been much speculation about his childhood and early adulthood and how it formed his personality. But the truth is that Brahms actually did acknowledge the genius of Wagner and thought that his opera 'The Mastersingers Of Nuremburg' as a high point in German art. That he disliked what he thought was the undue influence of these composers with younger composers is to be expected, given Brahms conservative nature.

But Brahms could be a devoted friend, and there is at least one example of his giving his help to an up and coming composer. Brahms was on a panel that was to select a gifted composer in the Hapsburg Empire to grant a stipend to help them keep composing. It was then that Brahms was amazed at the huge volume of music Dvořák entered in the competition. Brahms was instrumental in seeing that the stipend was awarded Dvořák not only that year, but the next two years also. Brahms sent letters to his publisher Simrock about Dvořák's music and even worked as a copyist and editor of the music to help speed up its publication. That Dvořák was appreciative is an understatement. They remained very good friends until Brahms death.

Dvořák wrote the Cello Concerto near the end of his time in New York City in 1894-1895.  It had its premiere in 1896 in London, England, which was conducted by Dvořák.

I. Allegro - The first movement begins quietly with clarinets and low strings. The orchestra reaches fortissimo and the theme continues in a robust manner. The orchestra gradually calms until the gentle and lyrical second theme is played by the horns. A rousing third theme rounds out the orchestral part of the exposition. Dvořák labels the cello entry with its version of the first theme quasi improvisando, like an improvisation. The cello’s version is punctuated by triple stops. A long section of trills by the soloist lead to a quickening of the first theme that leads to the cello’s version of the second lyrical theme.

The development section begins with a section for orchestra that expands the first theme until the cello plays a more lyrical version of it. The music quickens as the cello plays accompanying figures in sixteenth notes as the woodwinds continue to develop themes. The cello becomes more animated and complex with rapid double stops, and a climax is reached when the cello plays in chromatic octaves until the second lyrical theme is played in a louder version. The cello soon takes it back up and returns it to its gentleness. The cello plays rapid arpeggios and leads to the first theme once again, which after an increase in tempo brings the movement to an end in B major.  

The last piece of music of Dvořák’s that Brahms worked on was the Cello Concerto. He corrected the proofs and played the piano reduction of the orchestra with a cellist and is reported as saying, "If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!" No doubt this vast, virtuosic, and complex movement had a lot to do with that comment.

II. Adagio ma non troppo - Dvořák’s sister-in-law who he was very fond of inspired the second movement. He was in love with her but it didn't work out so he ended up marrying her sister. In the movement Dvořák quotes one of his own compositions, a song that he wrote that was one of his sister-in-law's favorites.  She had been taken ill while Dvořák was composing the score. The woodwinds begin the movement, and the cello enters with a theme in G major.  A more spirited middle section leads to the return of the initial theme with a version played and elaborated by the horns before the cello plays a solo that involves playing with the bow while accompanying itself with pizzicato notes on an open string. The movement gently ends as it begins.

III.  Allegro moderato - Andante - Allegro vivo - A theme that seems related to the first movement first theme is played by the horns. The music turns ever more rhythmic with a call and response section for cello and orchestra. A new theme enters and is developed. The opening theme returns and leads to another episode a few times. Themes from the first and second movements reappear. After Dvořák came back to his homeland from New York, his sis-in-law died, and he added this slow, quiet section to the concerto as a tribute. After this is played through, the orchestra ends the movement with a flourish in B major.

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.