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Brahms: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2

The Second Piano Concerto was written a year after the Academic Festival Overture, opus 80, and the Tragic Overture, opus 81 (both of summer 1880), and a full twenty-two years after the First Concerto. He had begun the work in 1878, but apparently the sketches were laid aside when he began to compose the Violin Concerto. Brahms’s last three symphonic works were still to come: the Third and Fourth Symphonies and the Double Concerto.

The colossal size of the Second Concerto stems from the fact that what he had actually composed during his summer holiday was a pair of works for piano and orchestra: “a little concerto” and “a tiny wisp of a scherzo.” In October he revised the scherzo and added it as a second movement to the little concerto, having feared the first movement too obvious and requiring something deeper before the equally simple Andante. But this solution, too, gave him some pause, and on at least one occasion he wondered if it would be better to leave the scherzo out, after all. Ultimately all four movements were retained—a workout for all concerned, yet an accomplishment of genuinely symphonic dimension. For the soloist, it is among the most difficult pieces in the concerto literature.

The distant and rather lazy horn call at the beginning and the soloist’s placid response are taken up for a moment by the woodwinds and then the strings, only to ebb away and be succeeded by the soloist’s vehement entry. (The effortlessness of this incursion of solo material into what is traditionally the orchestra’s turf owes much to precedent tactics of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. There is no formal cadenza.) The true orchestral exposition commences at the martial statement with brass and timpani. It goes on in a many-themed and harmonically extravagant structure –a sonata, in fact, but in Brahms’s best rhapsodic mode and with the materials transforming themselves as they go. Note, for example, how the opening horn motto dominates the structural turning points, though never in its original simplicity.

The second movement is a scherzo that tosses and turns in a D minor of great metrical ambiguities. The wistful fade, just before the repeat and just after the Schumannesque turn in the solo part is an excellent example of the Romantic tendency to reminisce over things once sinister, now tamed. The second strain amounts to a development and climax of the given material. Suddenly the mode shifts to major, and the tempo relents slightly; this trio is in the manner of a bumptious, syncopated country dance. The scherzo returns, with a syncopated coda.

The theme of the third movement is closely related to the opening gestures of Brahms’s song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer,” No. 2 of the Five Lieder, opus 105. The melody is presented in an eloquent setting for solo cello and strings, later joined by the solo oboe. The key is Bb major. The piano waxes rhapsodic on the given material, with a violent, harmonically unstable eruption at one point that serves to underscore the passions pent up in the tender theme. At the center is a lovely Piu Adagio for the two clarinets and piano. Now we have reached the remarkable key of F-sharp major, and the ooze back to B-flat is a process of exceptional harmonic magic. The return once accomplished, there is a gentle improvisatory ending for the cello and piano soloists. It’s a movement, in short, of matchless beauty, and well worth the wait.

The last movement is an airy rondo with strong hints, in the scoring for winds, of the Hungarian dance. Nor should you fail to note, knowing of the affinities that existed between Brahms and Dvořák, the strong allusions to the latter’s Slavonic manner, particularly in the interludes with flute. The carefree spirit of the movement seems the perfect release from the various passions of the first three. And Brahms was right to have left the scherzo where it was, for what results seems to me a shrewd and abundantly satisfying progress.

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