(1833 - 1897)

Brahms's second piano concerto was begun in 1878 and completed in July of 1881. The composer played the solo part at the first performance, a private concert in Meiningen in October 1881, and was also the pianist for the public premiere, in Budapest, on November 9 of that year. Previous Madison Symphony Orchestra performances have featured Gunnar Johansen (1955), Bela Szilagi (1962), Van Cliburn (1971), Alicia de Larrocha (1981), and André Watts (1990). Duration 50:00.

When a very young Brahms premiered his first piano concerto in1859, audience reactions ranged from indifference to revulsion. While its failure seems to have been due as much to musical politics as the work itself, Brahms was in no hurry to return to writing piano concertos, and certainly stayed away from works as passionate and flashy as the first concerto. He wrote to the violinist Joseph Joachim: "A second will sound different." Brahms was true to his word, but a second piano concerto was over 20 years in coming. He began sketching the concerto in 1878, during a trip to Italy, and continued to work on it for the next three years. It was not until the summer of 1881, that Brahms--with tongue firmly in cheek--announced to his friend, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg: "...I have written a tiny little piano concerto with a little wisp of a scherzo. It is in B-flat..." Brahms was well aware that his "tiny little B-flat concerto" was the largest work in this genre since Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto. Soon after its completion, Brahms and a colleague played a two-piano arrangement of the concerto for a small group of friends, including the influential critic Eduard Hanslick. The concerto's reputation spread quickly, and Brahms was soon invited by Hans von Bülow to perform it with Bülow's orchestra at Meiningen. After working out small details in this private performance, Brahms played the work at in a public concert at the Redoutensaal in Budapest. In contrast to the dismal reception given his first piano concerto, this work was very successful, almost immediately gaining acceptance as a part of the standard repertoire.

In the decades between 1859 and 1881, Brahms had become a self-confident and internationally acknowledged master of symphonic form. The sharp distinction between the first and second concertos is understandable in this light. While his youthful D minor concerto had been a brilliant and somewhat autobiographical work, Brahms himself was aware of its shortcomings, most of which resulted from his inexperience in orchestration. In contrast, the B-flat concerto is a more mature and emotionally reserved work that makes skillful use of the orchestra. The work was composed directly after the completion of his second symphony, and the elements of his mature symphonic style are heard in this concerto. Brahms even adds a fourth movement, expanding the typical three-movement concerto form to symphonic proportions. The second piano concerto thus presents special challenges for the soloist, above and beyond mere endurance. The pianist must be sensitive to the equal role played by the orchestra in developing thematic material. While there are few outward displays of virtuosity, the soloist is also called upon to play passage-work in octaves and sixths, immense chords, and complex rhythms, often in partnership with the full orchestra.

The concerto begins with a calm and dignified theme played by solo horn, in dialogue with the soloist.  After a brief cadenza, the main theme is re-introduced, now by full orchestra.  The opening movement (Allegro non troppo) continues in a greatly expanded sonata form.  Brahms's formal model for this opening movement seems to have been the equally expansive opening of Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto.  The second movement (Allegro appassionato), Brahms's "little wisp of a scherzo," begins in D minor, with a vigorous offbeat figure in the piano.  Aside from jaunty central episode in D Major, the mood is turbulent throughout.  Again, Brahms has expanded the form, inserting a great deal of thematic development into this normally clear-cut ternary form.  After the stormy scherzo, Brahms places a gentle Andante, set in home key of B-flat Major.   This movement opens with a solo cello presenting a quiet theme that is later picked up by the soloist in a tranquil and unhurried cadenza.  (Brahms would later rework the cello's theme in a song: Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer.)  A central section is more agitated, with the piano taking a leading role, but the solo cello, now in dialogue with the piano, returns again to round off the Andante .  The finale (Allegretto grazioso), which contains the most dramatic and virtuosic music for the soloist, is set in a seven-part rondo form (A B A C A B A).  The recurring refrain begins with a forceful dotted motive in the piano.  The rondo, typically the lightest of Classical forms, is here expanded to massive proportions--anything less would be overbalanced by what has come before.

program notes ©2002 J. Michael Allsen