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Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Andreas Delfs, conductor / Nelson Freire, piano, plays Brahms May 17 - 19, 2012
© Peter Laki

Brahms's second piano concerto manages to combine the widest extremes.  It is a majestic work of nearly an hour's duration, yet it possesses a very special lightness of touch.  It is a showpiece demanding considerable virtuosity on the soloist's part, yet it is singularly introspective at the same time.  It has been called the most ?symphonic" of all concertos (on account of its unusual four-movement structure), yet its instrumental textures are often closer to chamber music.  Brahms was never more faithful to the Beethovenian models than in this concerto, yet he was never more fully himself than here.  Brahms's entire personality was characterized by apparent contradictions such as these:  his serious demeanor and often forbidding exterior concealed a genuine sense of humor and a healthy taste for the pleasures of life.

The ground covered by the B-flat major concerto is enormous:  after a dreamy beginning, the first movement soon reaches a remarkably high energy level.  The second movement is a fiery ?Allegro appassionato" disguised as a scherzo.  The third movement is one of Brahms's most intense and most deeply felt andantes, while in the fourth movement the seriousness gives way to good cheer and the mood of Brahms's Hungarian Dances takes over. 

Only Brahms could call this work, in his usual self-deprecating manner, a ?tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo."  But the recipient of the letter in which these words are found, the composer's close friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg, probably knew Brahms well enough not to be fooled even before she could see and hear the new work.  Clara Schumann, Brahms's lifelong friend and one of the greatest pianists of the century, whom Brahms teased in a similar way, certainly wasn't fooled by such remarks.  She wrote to Brahms, returning his joke:  ?I don't really trust your word ?little'; however, I wouldn't mind a bit because in that case I might even be able to play it myself."

The importance Brahms attached to this concerto may be seen from the dedication.  It was the first piece he dedicated to his childhood music teacher, Eduard Marxsen (1806-1887), whom he always remembered in the fondest terms.  By adding the words ?To my dear friend and teacher, Eduard Marxsen," the 48-year-old Brahms was paying a tribute to the man who had first inspired him to become a musician; he was confident that the piece was a good demonstration of how well he had learned his lessons.

Of course, the concerto demonstrates much more than that.  With the great piano cadenza at the beginning, Brahms makes a direct reference to Beethoven's ?Emperor" Concerto, and it is obvious that this work, rather than the lighter, more lyrical concertos of Mendelssohn or Schumann, was his principal model.  But the cadenza is preceded by a dialogue between the first horn and the solo piano that has no precedents in the literature.  The soft-spoken lyricism of this opening and the heroism of the ensuing cadenza establish the two poles around which much of the movement will revolve. 

The music of the development section moves as far away from the initial key of B-flat major as the tonal system allows as the tone shifts from massive sforzato chords to light-footed leggiero ones.  The moment of recapitulation is somewhat hidden by a richer instrumentation in which the opening horn solo receives an orchestral context and the piano solo is omitted altogether. 

The Allegro appassionato, the scherzo-type movement in D minor Brahms added to the usual three-movement concerto design, begins as some kind of furious ?Liebeslieder" waltz (compare its rhythm and melody to some of Brahms's popular choruses from his Op. 52).  The piano is accompanied by horns and lower strings only (later joined by clarinets and bassoons).  The violins enter later, with a soft and quiet melody that serves as the movement's second theme.  Indeed, the scherzo begins to expand into a full-fledged sonata form as the piano elaborates extensively on both themes.  The full orchestra takes over fortissimo and leads into the D-major Trio, which is jubilant and rhythmical at first but turns romantic and mysterious as soon as the piano re-enters.  The recapitulation is free rather than literal, with many changes in form and orchestration.  The music grows more and more passionate and culminates in an intense crescendo that places the emotional climax at the very end of the movement.

The key of the third-movement Andante is B-flat major, which is unusual since slow movements are ordinarily in keys other than the work's main tonality.  It starts with a long and expressive cello solo; the piano's response is even more intimate in character.  It is not long, however, before it comes to another dramatic outburst; the piano plays violent trills and arpeggios over what is essentially a variation on the lyrical cello melody.  This dramatic section is counterbalanced by a dreamlike passage in a slower tempo, with a magical modulation to a distant key.   The piano is joined by two clarinets in this extremely delicate section, after which the initial cello melody returns, and the movement closes in a whisper.

The finale, Allegretto grazioso, is gentle and relaxed, yet not without grandeur.  In his 1990 book on Brahms, British author Malcolm MacDonald found particularly apt words to describe this unique combination of qualities:  ?Brahms never wrote a movement that was more of an unalloyed entertainment, nor more feline in its humour; the proportions remain kingly, but the lion now moves with a kitten's lightness and a cat's precise, unconscious grace."  One delightful and dance-like melody follows another in the movement; the tempo accelerates near the end as the concerto concludes with some thundering piano arpeggios.