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Length: c. 50 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (1st = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 10, 1927, with soloist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Brahms, forever self-critical, had the Second Concerto on the drawing board for three years. And when in 1881 he was ready to announce its presence, he wrote to his dear friend Clara Schumann, “I want to tell you that I have written a very small piano concerto with a very small and pretty scherzo.” The “very small concerto” is, of course, a giant of a piece in conception, Herculean in its pianistic demands, and in four not the conventional three movements. It was the composer himself who premiered the work. Invited to the town of Meiningen to take part in a concert arranged by the court orchestra’s conductor, Hans von Bülow, a relatively new convert to the composer’s music, Brahms played the solo part from manuscript. The program, devoted entirely to his music, also included the Tragic Overture, Haydn Variations, and, with Brahms conducting, the Academic Festival Overture and the First Symphony.
A massive Brahmsian feast which Meiningen and its duke digested rapturously. Thereafter, the town became a stronghold for the Brahms clique, and the Duke and Bülow ardent champions of the composer’s classical traditionalism as opposed to Wagner’s musico-dramatic dictums.
The Concerto, in the main, must be considered heavy stuff indeed. Yet the opening is deceivingly benign: a lone horn calls out the simplest of melodies, only eight notes, and is answered by the piano rising quietly from the keyboard's lowest depths. The call and response is repeated with some modification. The woodwinds then make their own answer and are soon joined by the strings; but both cease when the piano begins an impassioned cadenza. At first snapping angrily, then making noble proclamations which encompass the keyboard, the solo here is the signal that something grand is about to unfold, and indeed the Concerto embarks upon a vision of a whole world of Romantic ardor much beyond that which could be expected from the calm beginning. After the serene horn melody bursts forth in the full orchestra, a warmly expressive second theme is sung by the violins; this is followed by a jagged, angry idea. The second theme is not heard again until the piano takes it up, alone, in a contrasting spirit of urgency. But - here one pauses in description. The landscape is ever-changing, and one can only be stunned by the views. The pianistics are fiendishly difficult, but always an integral part of the musical texture, never there for mere display.
If the first movement is an impressive summit, the “small scherzo” is its twin peak. In turn turbulent and winsome, its minor-key dramatics aim for an amazing passage of piano double-octaves followed by a broad and noble melody. There is a return of the scherzo’s main idea and a powerful close.
The slow movement begins with a wondrous song spun out by a solo cello that later engages in a dialogue with oboe. The piano enters as if awakening from an enchanted slumber. Once aroused, it is provoked to intense emotions that, however, can be calmed. The cello song returns, the piano consolingly joining in transfigured peacefulness.
Ebullient elegance and charm mark the main theme of the final movement. Here Brahms’ creativity is virtually endless and endlessly beguiling. Not the least compelling episode is the one tinged with a strong Hungarian flavor. This stunning passage in double notes, scales in double thirds, octaves, etc. is a compendium of technical difficulties all splendidly wedded to the music.
Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.