Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major, Op. 83
If you don’t believe the two pictures above depict the same person, you’re not alone. When Brahms in his mid-40s decided to grow a beard, he surprised virtually everyone around him. With his childlike personality, Brahms would introduce himself as one “Herr Musikdirektor Müller” during street encounters with old friends, and he often succeeded in disguising himself. We have to remember that, in a famous essay of 1853 (New Paths), Schumann said of the 20-year-old Brahms: “Even in his external appearance he displays those characteristics which proclaim: here is a man of destiny!” History doesn’t tell us what Schumann would say about the beard.
In 1878, the same year in which he grew his magnificent beard, Brahms also reacquainted himself with a genre that he hadn’t touched for 22 years - the piano concerto. At this point in time, Brahms had firmly established himself as one of the leading composers of Europe. The confusion of the War of the Romantics was now two decades away. He was no longer the shy, self-aware composer whose sensitivity usually brought him more hurt than joy from his audience and critics. That may explain why the composer, now aged 50, decided to throw himself into the extensive tour during which he would premiere the work. Both this piece and the composer’s playing received good feedback. All were happy.
In this vein, it’s hard not to draw a comparison between the openings of his two piano concertos. Brahms wrote a gargantuan orchestra tutti to open his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, which is the kind of thing a young composer would usually do. Musicians generally agree that big and loud is easy, while small and quiet is difficult; after all, it’s all too easy to hide behind an orchestral tour de force the kind of details that demand justification.
The Second Piano Concerto, though, opens with a solemn French horn call. This is answered by the piano with the utmost care, as if the composer is trying to temper the percussive sound of the piano with a legato quality so as not to disturb the idyllic scene. To be sure, it wasn’t really a new idea to open a piano concerto with a softer quality - Beethoven did so in his Fourth, and Liszt in his Second. But to intertwine orchestra and piano so early on in a single phrase is a deliberate break from the past.
According to the model of Beethoven’s Fourth, Brahms would have put the melody on piano alone, and following Liszt’s Second, he would have let the horn finish the phrase before bringing in the soloist. But, he doesn’t. What Brahms is doing here, then, is making an announcement upfront that this is not going to be your usual virtuoso-soloist-plus-orchestra-accompaniment type of concerto. In fact, with its 4-movement structure (a typical concerto up to this time would always have 3 movements), the concerto is better understood as a symphony with piano.
After this initial pastoral passage, the piano immediately starts to develop the theme. Even in this short cadenza, one feels that this can only be Brahms, given his fondness for irregular rhythm and rubato, his signature three against four, and his effortless lyricism floating above those notoriously difficult technical challenges. Indeed, one can almost picture the composer himself labouring arduously at the piano - the technical flaws in Brahms’ piano-playing were criticised when he premiered his first piano concerto some 20 years ago. Again, look at the beard...
The pattern of orchestra leading and piano following comes again in the next section, where Brahms has the strings introduce the second theme of the movement. After much development, we arrive at a dreamy piano moment, where modulations lead subtly to the tranquil return of the horn theme. Never before in history has a more beautiful recapitulation been penned.
When the first movement finally comes to an end, we feel as if we’ve crossed a finish line (some applause at this point is not only natural, but also welcome). But in reality, Brahms is only just getting started. The next movement is inserted to make the concerto more ‘symphonic’, and the soloist and orchestra work closely together to develop the musical material, both thematically and texturally.
The third movement - the Andante - is among the most lyrical music Brahms ever composed. It’s also extraordinary in that we have a solo instrument, other than the one the piece was written for, that takes over the stage for almost 3 minutes - the cello. This is reminiscent of Brahms’ violin concerto, written in the same year, which includes a 2-minute-long oboe solo in the slow movement. In fact, the famous virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate declined to play the work because he found it silly to stand in front of the orchestra doing nothing for 2 minutes. Thankfully, for his second piano concerto, with the composer himself playing the soloist’s part, all question of ego was put aside.
But to make the lead cellist happy was never Brahms’ chief concern. When the dedicatee of his cello sonata complained that Brahms’ piano playing was too loud for him to hear himself, the composer responded: “Lucky for you!” In addition to the cello, Brahms also pays significant attention to the clarinet at the back, creating a trio among the three voices in which the cello leads, the clarinet echoes in the distance, and the piano plays a supporting role. This is a chamber music moment in this otherwise huge symphonic structure.
The last movement brings us back to the suggestion that Brahms, at this point in the maturity of his craftsmanship, developed a sense of playfulness in both his life (see: beard) and compositions. In this movement, with its entertaining, gipsy-like style, we can imagine that he’s saying, “Look, I have shown you the sublime, the virtuosic, the struggling, the lyrical. Now, let’s dance!” In fact, the second subject, first introduced by winds and followed by strings, could easily have appeared in one of his Hungarian Dances - and it’s definitely very difficult to resist the temptation to dance in the speedy coda of the finale
Brahms had fun, and left an enduring gift to the world.
© Jingwei Yu 2019