Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major, op. 83

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          “This is a chosen one.”  Robert Schumann so characterized Johannes Brahms in his famous article that introduced the young Brahms to the public.  Little did he know!  Brahms went on to become the last great successor of the artistic mantle of musical Classicism that led from Joseph Haydn, through Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.  That’s taking the rather narrow view, of course, for there were others who followed who revered the classical attributes of restraint, balance, clarity of form, elegance, and general equipoise that came to characterize the collective features known as classical musical style.   And they stand in clear contrast to the sweeping trends and excesses of music Romanticism that came to dominate European music until the cataclysm of World War I.

          Simply put, the composers of the nineteenth century after Beethoven tended to divide themselves into two groups.  The progressives were true “Romantics,” and were greatly influenced by the extra-musical ideas that were the subjects of contemporary literature, poetry, and painting, among others.  They devised new genres, such as the tone poems of Smetana and Liszt, the music dramas of Wagner, and the characteristic piano pieces of Chopin.  Much of this music, to use a phrase still common among seekers of meaning in music, was about “something”--something familiar to human experience. Liszt and Wagner, et al, while respecting the music of the past, saw no future in continuing Classicism.

          Others, Brahms most significantly, still adhered strongly to the approach of Beethoven.   He and other conservatively minded musicians held that the traditional forms of sonata, concerto, and symphony had not nearly exhausted their viability, and that music should continue to speak in an integrated language that referred to itself, alone, and certainly not to extra-musical ideas.  So, he and his ilk continued to write “pure,” or “abstract” music, like sonatas and symphonies (a so-called symphony is just a sonata for orchestra). Today, most of those who compose, perform, and listen to art music see no contradiction at all in valuing both broad aesthetic viewpoints—so we enjoy the best of both worlds.

          Brahms wrote two piano concertos, separated by the passage of some twenty-two years.  This first one is the product of his relative youth, having been completed in 1859, when he was twenty-five.   A youthful work it is not, however.  Brahms had labored over it for most of the decade of the 1850s, and during that time it underwent several substantial transformations.  He did not return to the genre for almost twenty years, beginning work in 1878.  The second concerto was finished in 1881 after about three year’s labor, and given its première that same year in Budapest with Brahms as the soloist.

           It’s a big work, cast in four, rather than the usual three movements of a concerto, each movement being a substantial one, as well.  It achieved success right away, and has maintained its position as a cornerstone of the Romantic piano concerto ever since.  The first movement begins with the famous solo in the first horn, and the piano immediately responds magisterially, but not with important thematic material.  That remains for the woodwinds, who introduce an idea that will be heard frequently.  In the tradition of all great artists, Brahms doesn’t just pour his ideas into a standard form, but surprises us with a big piano cadenza at this point.  The full orchestra then enters with the initial theme.  Other ideas—some warm, some austere, but all most assuredly “Brahmsian”--follow this dramatic interruption, as this forceful, complex movement evolves, with all of the material suitably worked over. The recapitulation is easy to spot, as the “horn” melody from the opening serenely leads us back to the recap and the coda, and the trill-driven, shimmering conclusion.  A dance-like movement, minuet early on, and scherzo later, but both in triple meter, usually is one of the middle movements of a symphony, and Brahms adds one, here.  He famously, and most ingenuously, referred to it as a “tiny wisp of a scherzo.”   That it most assuredly is not.  This movement, like most the work, is forceful, and if it “dances,” it's a heavy, swinging one.  The contrasting middle section brings a delightful change in mode and rhythm, and later, the horns and woodwinds lead us into a more serene mood, but inevitably give way to the opening, with a decisive conclusion.

          The second movement is one of Brahms’ most memorable ones.  Long before the piano enters, the solo violoncello plays one of the composer’s most beautiful melodies, and here, an adjective so often applied to his music is perfectly apt:  elegiac.  Soon, the piano enters meditatively, and extends the mood.   After a stormy interlude the piano and clarinets resume the tranquil ideas in a winsome duet, on their way to a reprise of the opening ‘cello solo—but now in the most unusual orchestral key of Gb.  The “right” key is gradually arrived at, and the orchestra takes the lead, passing the lyricism around within, as the piano weaves introspective arabesques.   It all ends in a floating tranquility.

          Last movements of concertos are often lighter in mood, and here Brahms is about as light as he can bring himself in a symphonic work.   Essentially, the movement is a kind of combination of a rondo and a sonata form, but that doesn’t matter, for all that counts is enjoying the plethora of beguiling tunes peppered throughout.  There are essentially five of them, presented in five distinct sections, with the first two easily perceived in the first section.   The soloist and then the orchestra take each of them up.   The second section yields the other three tunes, the first a “drooping” Gypsy-like tune in the best Brahms manner, followed by two other ones.   The third section returns to and develops the themes that we heard in the first, and the fourth section does the same for the three tunes of the second.  Clear? In any case, it is easy to spot and follow all these great ideas, and Brahms doesn’t cloak them in a lot of dense intellectual meanderings.  The fifth and final section is a march-like coda in a loping triple meter, based on the very first idea—piano and orchestra trading it back and forth to the decisive end.  The whole work is a perfect example of the composer’s greatness:  inimitable lyricism; impeccable craftsmanship; clear, formal structure; definitive personal style; and a profound expressive content.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan