About this Recording
8.554089 - BRAHMS, J.: Piano Concerto No. 2 / SCHUMANN, R.: Introduction and Allegro appassionato (Biret, Polish National Radio Symphony, Wit)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92

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 Reményi, 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 Franz Liszt held court, a visit from which Reményi 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 Gesamtkunstwerk 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 comers of the preceding movements, its mood inherited from Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms's great predecessors in Vienna.

In 1844 the Schumanns moved from Leipzig to the city of Dresden. Robert Schumann had suffered intermittently from depression, accentuated by the fact that he had now become the consort of a pianist of considerable fame, his own rôle a decidedly secondary one during the concert tour of Russia that had occupied the earlier months of the year. Dresden, where Wagner had recently become conductor at the opera, was, in spite of this, relatively conservative. Here Schumann set about the task of teaching his young wife counterpoint, while he returned to his work as a composer with a certain renewal of energy. The Introduction and Allegro appassionato for piano, with orchestral accompaniment, was a product of the eventful year 1849, the period that brought a republican uprising in Dresden, the hurried departure of Wagner, who had been involved openly with more extreme factions, and general disturbance, as the unrest was suppressed with Prussian help. Throughout the months of tumult, during which the Schumanns had taken refuge outside the city, Robert Schumann continued to write music, completing the present work during the later part of September, a month that brought songs and piano pieces. The gentle Introduction to Opus 92 allows orchestral melodies to appear through the evocative piano arpeggios, first from the clarinet, then from the French horn, before the piano too assumes a melodic rôle. The Allegro appassionato is dominated by the opening figure from the orchestra, but largely justifies its descriptive title, a work for piano with orchestral accompaniment.

Keith Anderson

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