Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15; Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.83; Three Intermezzi, Op.117
They spoke about it
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
Brahms’ first piano concerto is the crowning accomplishment of his early years; among the opus numbers preceding the Concerto its only close rivals are the Serenade in D, Op. 11 (which was however composed after the Concerto) and the B major trio, Op. 8 (which, in the version generally played was profoundly revised more than 30 years later).
While its stirring, genial nature is today undisputed, the D minor Concerto was a failure at its first performances in Hannover, Leipzig and Hamburg in 1859. One would speculate that this must have been due to poor performances, were it not that the great violinist (and fine composer himself) Joseph Joachim conducted (except in Leipzig), and were it not that the composer was the soloist and wrote that he had played well, and that the orchestra was excellent… One reason the concerto failed to impress could be that no piano brilliant enough to allow the soloist to be prominently heard over the orchestra had yet been built. Indeed, the massive, symphonic character of the orchestral writing, essential to the work’s diabolical, stormy character, is hard for the soloist to penetrate even on today’s best instruments.
In any event, Brahms did not lose faith in his creation, but he did see fit to make numerous changes before publishing it. And just as the finishing touches in architecture (or for that matter, in the performance of music) fundamentally alter the impression conveyed, it may well be that these changes were crucial to making it a masterpiece. Slightly flawed magic, after all, comes across as bungling, not as magic at all.
The Concerto had started its career as a sonata for 2 pianos in 1854. This was shortly after Brahms had been launched on his career by the legendary and prophetic praise Schumann had bestowed on him, anointing him as “the chosen one who would bring to life, in the most ideal manner, the highest expression of his era.” The Concerto passed through an intermediate stage in its life-cycle as a symphony, before finally becoming the glorious concerto that it is; like Beethoven, Brahms worked and reworked his creations relentlessly.
And the piece displays other parallels with Beethoven: both composers’ first major orchestral work is a piano concerto, Op. 15; both were about 25 years old; and the glowing 2nd theme of the Brahms, first proclaimed by the piano alone, starts exactly like the slow movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. But the resemblance which can hardly be coincidence is a single extraordinary chord which the Concerto shares with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (like the Concerto, also in D minor). This sudden, terrifying blast (about 30 bars before the first piano entrance) is in almost every detail identical to the second return of the Presto opening of the 9th Symphony’s finale. This is not plagiarism, but an encoded bow of reverence to Beethoven. (Beethoven’s chord is actually slightly more radical than Brahms’, employing all 7 notes of the scale simultaneously, four of them lying directly next to each other—Brahms omits one note.)
The ominous, almost unbearable tension of the concerto’s long opening tutti is sustained, in part, by the fact that this D minor concerto has no prominent D minor chord until the piano entrance, almost one fifth of the way through the movement. The threatening tympani rolls, the angular, violent leaps, and the screaming trills and tremolos create a level of musical turmoil never before reached. The piano participates to some extent in this onslaught, especially in the recapitulation, where it not only steals the opening motive from the orchestra, which had monopolized it until then, but gives it a stupendous mutation by changing its key to an unexpected and thrilling new chord. On the whole, though, the soloist concentrates on the many soulful and warmly lyrical elements in the movement.
The Adagio was reworked by Brahms from an unpublished Mass, and may have been conceived as a memorial to Schumann, who died in 1856. Introspective thoughtfulness and fond remembrance could hardly be better expressed than by the serene and wholesome step-wise flow of this movement; rarely have bassoons, who have a leading role, been made to sound so reverent. Hushed, meandering, improvisatory confessions in the piano treble lead to a more poignant middle section, played by the piano alone. When the opening section returns, it gradually swells to a towering, throbbing monument, that eventually fades back to the “confessions” and a delicate, shimmering cadenza. Some of the slow movement’s touching sweetness comes from the direct juxtaposition of its D major tonality, which so effectively melts the gruff menace of its D minor neighbours.
The last movement reaps the best of both of these worlds, starting quite aggressively with its incisive rhythm and hustling bass line. The first episode turns to F major, with a soaring, very Schumannesque piano tune, while the second features a harmonious rising arpeggio motive in the strings. This motive is later extended using the bass line of the opening theme, to become a short but haunting fugato (shades of Beethoven, again, who employs a somewhat similar fugato at the same spot in his 3rd Piano Concerto). Following the diminution of this theme (i.e., doubling its apparent speed), an enchanting transformation of the opening theme is given by the piano, high in the treble, and in major!—quite unexpected in the severe context the theme had previously displayed. But the troubled mood is not yet permanently dispelled; on the contrary, the first episode now returns in minor, quite agitated, and leads to a dramatic cadenza. Starting bitterly, it gradually becomes ecstatic and leads us to the coda, which now remains in D major, at first reflectively and poignantly, and eventually building up to a heroic, exultant finish.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83
Even more massive than its antecedent, the Concerto in B flat major stretches the conventional frame of the piano concerto to its limits. Had Beethoven’s 5th Concerto not already been dubbed the “Emperor”, this work might justifiably have taken on an imperial epithet. Some have contended that this is indeed a symphony with piano obbligato, but in fact, the piano plays just as dominant a role as in the D minor Concerto or in the Beethoven concerti, playing unaccompanied or just marginally accompanied for more than one third of the work’s duration.
The role of the soloist has not diminished, but the orchestra has indeed become highly symphonic in character, contributing more colour and character, and challenging the supremacy of the soloist more boldly. There are no cautious dynamics, as in Beethoven, who often tames the volume of the orchestra even when its contribution is primary. To proceed immediately after the opening to a stunning solo cadenza constitutes a unique contrast and a defiant attack on the bucolic, gentle main theme intoned by the French horn and answered in similar character by the piano, woodwinds and strings, in turn.
The main theme responds to this attack not so much with violence as with grandeur, turning the distant horn motive into a noble and triumphant march. Brahms, even more than Beethoven in his middle period, was almost compulsive in exploiting fully and frugally the potential of each and every scrap of motive. Note for example the augmentation (spreading the notes over a longer time frame, in effect slowing them down) of the first motive’s three ascending notes at the piano entrance after the first long orchestral tutti. (Shortly thereafter, it is heard with the opposite effect, diminution.) These are just two easily recognizable manifestations of the constant integration of thematic material that is one of Brahms’ trademarks.
One wonders how the composer could maintain his high level of inspiration while manipulating every motivic fragment so exhaustively. It is hard to deny that this intricate cleverness in construction can occasionally create a somewhat artificial academic character, which is however usually so much in the shadow of the music’s strong emotional currents, that it passes without unduly distracting us. And indeed, parts of the development border on sounding contrived, in their interplay of ascending and descending triplet figures (derived from the gentle rising chords of the very first piano entrance) and in the almost mocking transformation of the descending horn figure from the movement’s opening into a slightly tedious dotted rhythm that momentarily hints at “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord”… In any event, the recapitulation is so subtle and original that any shortcomings are quickly forgotten.
The movement is filled with splendid and highly original pianistic colours, flying arabesques, thunderous leaping chords, low and bizarre trills, and just before the coda, a chilling chromatic tremolo-like descent over much of the keyboard. The second movement, which Brahms once jokingly referred to as “a very small little scherzo” is in fact a full-blooded movement of enormous intensity, which attempts to rival or even surpass the drama of the first movement. Is the D minor tonality a silent salute to the first Concerto, or does that key just naturally imply storm and passion for Brahms?
As in the D minor Concerto, the contrast with D major, heard here in the raucously exuberant middle section, is a dominating feature of the scherzo. The slow movement also shares some characteristics with the first concerto, namely its unusual 6/4 meter and the smoothly descending lower cello line. The theme itself is a splendid solo for the first cellist, an extended tender song of love. When the piano finally comes in, as in the first movement, it embarks on a cadenza, very improvisatory in character, and only distantly related to the main theme. It remains utterly sweet and dreamy until the last few bars, where it swells to a grandiose and serious climax that sets off an impassioned development of the main theme, the piano proclaiming it in diminution and interspersed with swirling flourishes.
After a magical interlude in the distant key of F# major, featuring a duet between clarinet and piano, the cello brings back the main theme exactly as at the beginning, except that instead of returning to B flat major, it stays in the distant “wrong” key of F# major. This surrounds it with an unworldly distant haze, until it finds its way back to the home key. Cello, oboe and piano intertwine in the coda, caressing each other and the listener with fond and gentle gestures.
After the driven, tumultuous character of the two opening movements, it would be futile to compete by creating yet another ferocious movement, so Brahms presents us with an “Allegretto grazioso” rondo. Note that it is grazioso, not scherzando, which allows the delicate humour of its opening theme to remain aristocratic and tender, about as close to the “Gemuetlichkeit” spirit of his adopted Vienna as Brahms ever gets. This of course does not pervade the whole movement, which has excitement and even an occasional bit of bombast. Two episodes travel east of Vienna to enjoy a distinctly Hungarian flavour, but without the banality that some of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances display. Again, as in the first movement, a variety of exotic pianistic colours and figurations exhilarate and fascinate us, until the pace quickens and the piece ends with powerful dignity, evading any exaggerated flamboyance.
Three Intermezzi Op. 117
In maximal contrast to the piano concerti, the Intermezzi Op. 117 emanate tender wisdom, calm resignation, and even a hint of exhaustion. Still in his fifties when he wrote them, Brahms was not yet an old man by modern standards, but his output was declining dramatically. Whereas until 1892 he produced an absolutely reliable four opus numbers a year, in his last 6 years only six further opus numbers were utilized. Regarded by many as representing the old guard versus the new waves of such as Strauss, Mahler, Debussy and Wagner, he may have felt that the main stream of music had passed him by. He had had his fine innings, but now lacked the energy to enter the struggle for steering the course of future music, or for further grand enterprises like symphonies. This does not reduce the greatness of his last works, in fact it adds poignancy to their touching, introspective intimacy.
The Intermezzi Op. 117 are all in the simplest “ABA” form, but it is interesting to trace the varied ways in which Brahms, ever the clever and frugal architect, relates the middle sections to their envelopes.
The first Intermezzo quotes two lines of a Scottish Folk Song from Herder’s ‘Volkslieder’: “Sleep gently, sleep gently and sweetly, it grieves me so to watch you cry”. And indeed, it is the sweetest imaginable lullaby, calm and hypnotic by way of its ostinato discant. In the middle section this sweetness gives way to a hushed anxiety, which is interrupted thrice by the nucleus of the lullaby theme, three descending steps. If there is any doubt as to this derivation, it is erased when a fourth flashback—this time in augmentation (twice as slow)—leads directly to the return of the main theme.
In the second intermezzo a wistfully melancholy matrix of flowing notes veils a delicate tune which mixes the poise of a minuet with the informality of a quiet conversation. The middle section, turning to major, becomes warmer and richer, making it hard to recognize that the thematic material is in fact identical, two pairs of steps that first descend, then ascend; only the rhythm is slightly altered. This relationship is easiest to perceive at the moment when the first incarnation returns, initially in outline form without its interspersed flowing continuum.
The final Intermezzo murmurs its numbed, morose theme “sotto voce”, under the breath. The connection in this piece between its two sections is far more tenuous; in fact, if it exists at all, it is hard to describe in words. What counts here is the contrast. The main theme dwells and meanders, one step at a time, within a very small range of notes, and the emphasis is on downward motion. In the middle section, it soars with hope, many adjoining melody notes being more than an octave apart. A brief transition dashes the fresher atmosphere and the piece ends in serene gloom.
© Anton Kuerti