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8.553268 - BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 / SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto, Op. 54
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed a natural aptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of his touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a firm grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy earned a living for himself by playing the piano in dockside taverns.
In 1851 Brahms met the Hungarian violinist Remenyi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Pranz Liszt held court, a visit from which Remenyi profited, while Brahms failed to impress the Master. Later in the year Brahms met Schumann, again through Joachim's agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1849 Robert Schumann had moved with his pianist wife Clara to Düsseldorf as director of music, the first official appointment of his career. In the music of Brahms that he now heard he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Clara Schumann and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death, shortly before his own in 1897.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna in 1863 and established himself there, seeming to many to fulfil, as the years went by, Schumann's prophecy, much to the chagrin of Wagner and his supporters, who saw the succession to Beethoven in a very different light. Unlike the latter Brahms attempted no Gesammtkunstwerk and no amalgamation of the arts, as Liszt had attempted in his symphonic poems. To his friends Brahms seemed the champion of pure or abstract music without any extra-musical associations.
"The long terror" was Brahms's description of his second piano concerto, a massively impressive work completed in 1881 and falling between the second and third of the four symphonies in order of composition. Brahms had started work on the concerto in 1878 and finished the score in the summer of 1881, which he spent happily at Pressbaum, near Vienna. For its first performance in November, 1881, the composer appeared as soloist in Pest, following this, later in the same month, with performances nearer home with the Meiningen Court Orchestra under Hans von Bülow, who had espoused the cause of Brahms with the eagerness and enthusiasm that he had once shown for Wagner, before the latter eloped with his wife Cosima, illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt. Brahms played the concerto in various towns with the Meiningen orchestra. In Vienna, however, where the first performance of the concerto took place in 1884, the critic Eduard Hanslick, a firm friend of Brahms, could only speak with reserve of the composer's technical ability as a pianist whatever his admiration for the concerto itself, praising his rhythmic strength and masculine authority, and remarking that Brahms now had more important things to do than practise a few hours a day, a kind excuse for any technical imperfections there might have been in his playing.
The first movement of the B flat major Piano Concerto opens with a dialogue between the orchestra and soloist, initiated by the French horn. The orchestra adds a second important element to the thematic material, to be interrupted by a longish piano solo. On its return the orchestra has a third item of significance to add, before the piano turns expansively to the opening melody, as the movement takes its impressive course. The second movement, a form, of scherzo, in the key of D minor, is on the same enormous scale. It is followed by a slow movement, in which a solo cello proposes the first, tranquil theme, later to be varied by the soloist, before the appearance of other material, the pianist playing music of simple and limpid beauty above a low cello F sharp, accompanied by two clarinets. This brief passage of quiet meditation leads to the return of the first theme from the solo cello and the end of the movement. The concerto ends with a rondo that happily dispels any anxieties that might have lurked in the more ominous corners of the preceding movements, its mood inherited from Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms's great predecessors in Vienna.
In common with certain other musicians of the nineteenth century, Robert Schumann showed an early inclination to literature, a bent inherited, possibly, from his father, a bookseller, publisher and writer himself. His literary ability was to find expression in the influential Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he edited and to which he contributed, and this was coupled, at first, with his ambition as a pianist, curtailed by a weakness in fingers of the right hand. Schumann's major achievement, however, was to be as a composer, at first of piano music, then of songs, and finally, principally after his marriage, of orchestral works on a larger scale.
It was in October, 1830, that Schumann became a pupil of Friedrich Wieck, a man who had made his goal in life the creation of a virtuoso in his young daughter Clara. Two years later lessons came to an end: Schumann had proved a dilatory pupil in thorough bass and counterpoint, under the Leipzig theatre conductor Heinrich Dom, and the increasing weakness of the fingers of his right hand made any career as a pianist impossible, in spite of attempts by doctors to effect a cure by various means, including Tierbäder, dipping the affected hand into the carcass of a freshly-killed animal.
The relationship with the Wieck family had a much profounder effect on Schumann' s life. By 1835 he had begun to show alarming signs of affection for the fifteen-year-old Clara Wieck, much to the dismay of her father, who in the following years was to try every means, including litigation, to prevent his favourite daughter sacrificing her career to a young man of unsteady and even of immoral character. In the end Wieck was unsuccessful, and Schumann married Clara in 1840, the famous Year of Song, in which he set so many poems to music.
Schumann's A Minor Piano Concerto was started in the first years of marriage. In 1841, while the couple were still living in Leipzig, he completed what was intended as a single-movement Phantasie for piano and orchestra, which was later to form the first movement of the concerto. Late in 1844, after concert tours of varying success, and a return of bouts of depression that were increasingly to afflict him, they moved to Dresden, where Schumann added two further movements. Clara had tried out the original first movement with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra soon after its composition and two weeks before the birth of the first of her seven children. The first public performance of the whole concerto was given in Dresden under Ferdinand Hiller in 1845, while Mendelssohn conducted a second performance in Leipzig on New Year's Day, 1846. Clara Schumann was the soloist on both occasions.
Schumann's later career was to take him from Dresden to Düsseldorf, where in 1850 he assumed the position of Director of Music. In practical matters and in dealings with the City Council he was unsuccessful, and his tenure was, in any case, interrupted by his mental break-down in 1854 and his death in an asylum two years later. Clara Schumann was to continue her career as a pianist, the greatest pianist of the age, according to the critic Eduard Hanslick, giving her last public concert in 1891, but continuing her musical activities until her death in 1896. The Piano Concerto was to remain part of her repertoire.
The first movement of the concerto opens with all the panache of an improvised piano solo. Structurally, however, the movement is in sonata form, the principal theme following in the oboe being taken up by the piano, and used, in essence, in later movements. The Intermezzo provides a lyrical interlude, where the piano predominates in narration of a curious story, reminding us of those shorter character-pieces that are so typical of the composer. This leads to the final movement, originally conceived as a separate Rondo, and with all the excitement that we should associate with a last movement. Here the soloist can cut a dash, and the composer demonstrate his control of form and his consistency of inspiration, even after an interval of four years between the composition of the first and the later movements.
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels
Budapest Symphony Orchestra
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