JOHANNES BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He began sketching the Piano Concerto No. 2 in the late spring of 1878 and completed the score at Pressbaum, near Vienna, on July 7, 1881. After a private tryout with Hans von B├╝low and the Meiningen Orchestra, Brahms gave the first performance on November 9, 1881, in Budapest, with Alesander Erkel conducting the orchestra of the National Theater. The orchestral part calls for pairs of flues, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

The two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms are works of, respectively, youth and maturity. Brahms wrote to his good friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, after the disastrous reception accorded the First in Leipzig, “A second one will sound very different.” No doubt at the time, he was simply reacting to the experience of hearing his own work with a sure awareness of how much he had grown during its gestation; another concerto would naturally reflect that accumulated experience and perhaps be accomplished with less strain. But it was more than two decades before Brahms returned to the medium of the piano concerto. In that time he himself had changed from a sensitive youth, a clean-shaven stripling of great beauty with flowing blond locks, out of whom surged passionate and demanding music, into a portly and middle-aged figure with the familiar full beard, whose music contained more of repose and poignancy.

The D-minor concerto, coming at a time of disappointment, frustration, and doubt, caused Brahms enormous trouble. He reused parts of it for his German Requiem and he waited years to hear it, only to have an openly hostile audience. Between the two concertos Brahms composed three major sets of variations—two for piano, on themes by Handel and Paganini, and one for two pianos, later orchestrated, on a theme attributed to Haydn—as well as three string quartets, three piano trios, two string sextets, the piano quintet, the first two symphonies, the violin concerto, and over a hundred small vocal and choral works, as well as the German Requiem and other choral works with orchestra. It is well known that he put off for a long time composing either symphonies or string quartets, because those were the genres especially connected to Beethoven, whose music both inspired him and, at the beginning, inhibited him.

By the time he came to write the Second Concerto, he had gotten over that fear of Beethoven always at his back. The second concerto reached completion with fewer frustrations, and though Brahms (as usual) remained diffident about letting it out into the world without a private hearing first, he was self-confident enough to indulge in the eccentricities of those who need not especially worry about what others think of them: the famous beard, probably the fullest in the history of music, was a recent acquisition. When he finished the piece on July 7, 1881, he wrote to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg that very day to describe his newly finished score coyly as “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”—thus jokingly describing one of the most monumental of all piano concertos, and one with a giant scherzo. Similarly he wrote his chamber music companion, Dr. Theodore Billroth, that he had written “a few little piano pieces,” wondering whether he hadn’t “milked the B-flat cow” a little too often (a reference, perhaps, to several earlier works in that key—a string sextet, a string quartet, and the Haydn Variations among them—as well as to the realization that three of the four movements in the concerto are in the tonic). But he surely recognized the new ease of his mastery and he dedicated the concerto to his Hamburg teacher Eduard Marxsen, who had taught him, decades before, the elements of Classical shaping and repose that he had now clearly mastered so thoroughly.

From the start the Concerto was well received, and Brahms performed it in twelve different cities ranging from Hungary to the Baltic during the winter of 1881–82 (including two performances with different orchestras in his old home town of Hamburg). The response must have been especially sweet after the chilly reception accorded the First Concerto so long before.

Throughout the Concerto Brahms reworks the traditional relationship between soloist and orchestra, so that his “classical” forms are anything but sterile repetitions of past composers. So thoroughly and in so many original ways did piano and orchestra interact that many commentators thought of the work as a “symphony with obbligato piano” rather than a concerto. But Brahms was simply expanding imaginatively on the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom found many varied ways to combine the orchestra (or parts of it) with the soloist.

Still, the symphonic construction, the wide-ranging harmonic sweep, the complete omission of the traditional cadenza at the end of the movement (replaced, in a sense, by a kind of solo “cadenza” at the very opening), the enormous demands made on the pianist in terms of sheer fingers, not to mention dynamics and musical interpretation, the greater clarity and variety of orchestral color and expressive mood, while still showing the composer’s unsurpassed powers of variation, linking, and development of ideas from one another—all these features made the opening movement a capstone for the concerto repertory.

The most unusual feature of the Second Concerto is the presence of a full-scale scherzo movement, making it one of the few four-movement concertos in existence. (Brahms had earlier toyed with, and rejected, the notion of a scherzo for the Violin Concerto.) Brahms explained the addition in a letter to his friend and chamber music partner Billroth by saying that the opening movement—in a rather broad, not very fast, tempo—was “too simple”; he wanted something passionate as a change of pace before moving on to the slow movement, with its ravishing cello solo. He wrote both of the first two movements with endings clearly designed to generate audience applause (the tradition of not applauding between movements is a very recent one, and one that certainly does not reflect the response demanded of listeners in these two sections.)

The slow movement begins with that wonderful cello solo, which gradually becomes intertwined with other ideas; it is so characteristic of a sustaining instrument like the cello that the piano never attempts it, but offers either to decorate it or to simplify it. Like the opening, the Finale is “fast but not really fast,” with a touch of lightheartedness and an occasional bow to the gypsy music that was so popular a style in the Romantic era. —© Steven Ledbetter