BRAHMS AND THE “SYMPHONIC” CONCERTO
When Colorado Music Festival Artistic Advisor Peter Oundjian takes the podium at Chautauqua for the first time this week (Thursday, July 12, 2018) — along with a marquee soloist in pianist Yefim Bronfman — the vehicle of choice is the most “symphonic” piano concerto that had been written up to that point in music history: Johannes Brahms’s First Concerto in D minor.
And the ground could not have been better laid in the CMF’s first two weeks. Whether coincidental or not, the inclusion of great piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven in those opening concerts paved the way for the Brahms. Orion Weiss played Beethoven’s final concerto, the “Emperor,” on July 1. Not only was the “Emperor” laid out on a broader scale than even Beethoven had attempted before, it was the first major piano concerto that did not explicitly ask the soloist to provide an improvised “cadenza” near the end of the first movement. Beethoven explicitly marks in the score at that point that the soloist is to play what is written (a shorter cadenza-like passage) and nothing of the performer’s own devising.
On July 7, Gabriela Martinez played Mozart’s D-minor concerto, K. 466 from 1785. This bold landmark work was intensely admired by Beethoven, and he even contributed his own cadenzas for it (which Martinez played). One cannot imagine Beethoven’s own innovations in the concerto form without the precedent of Mozart.
And this brings us to Brahms. The D-minor concerto, which he finally finished in 1859, is a natural successor to the works of Beethoven and Mozart. Yes, other great concertos had been written between Beethoven and Brahms, including the excellent example from his mentor and champion Robert Schumann. But the more direct line is from the earlier masters.
It is an astonishingly early work in the composer’s output. The opus number is 15. The First Symphony, completed almost 20 years later, is Op. 68. The four-movement Second Piano Concerto is Op. 83. This makes its power and symphonic breadth even more surprising. Part of the explanation lies in the concerto’s protracted genesis.
Brahms apparently conceived the work initially as a sonata for two pianos, but then attempted to expand it into a symphony, which would have been his first. But when he found that he could not escape the pianistic textures when trying to transfer them to purely orchestral writing, he finally arrived at the compromise solution of a piano concerto.
The writing for piano is titanic and fiendishly difficult, but not composed for obviously showy display (as in contemporary concertos by Chopin and Liszt). But the orchestral scoring is remarkably assured for the young composer, and it clearly sounds like the more mature Brahms. He retains a distinctly classical ensemble, though, and at times it is difficult to believe that he obtains such strong sonorities with no trombones or tuba, although the timpani are used to magnificent effect.
It is also a work of both intense tragedy and ultimate triumph, deeply colored by Robert Schumann’s final illness in 1853 and death in 1856.
The first movement usually lasts around 22 minutes. This makes it the longest instrumental movement Brahms ever wrote. The first movements of his later Violin Concerto and Second Piano Concerto come close, and that of the Second Symphony — even with its very long exposition repeat — clocks in at around 21 minutes. None of Mozart’s first movements to his piano concertos exceeds 15 minutes. Those of Beethoven’s last two fall just short of 20, and that of his Violin Concerto actually beats Brahms, typically running around 25 minutes depending on the cadenza and the tempo.
We are dealing with a monstrous structure. Even the meter, a very broad 6/4 in a moderate tempo, contributes to its size. The first orchestral statement already proclaims this, with its long-held bass pedal point under the dramatic presentation of the angular first theme. In a departure from his models, Brahms does not have the orchestra present the second theme. Rather, it concentrates fully upon the opening theme and its derivatives, leading to the piano’s rather unassuming entry before it too takes its turn at it.
The first presentation of the passionately warm and gorgeous second theme is given to the piano alone, both in the initial exposition and in the later reprise — a compensation for the fact that the massive movement has no solo cadenza at all, even one written by the composer? Not that the piano is ever given much rest. A brutally hard series of cascading octaves follows shortly after the presentation of the second theme, for example. More dramatic gestures follow, including the striking new harmonization of the main theme upon its return. The conclusion is powerful and unremittingly tragic.
The slow movement is almost a complete contrast in mood and presentation. After the giant first movement, the extremely subdued dynamic level and intimate scoring seem as if the energy has been completely sapped. Yet there is a connection. Brahms retains both the broad 6/4 meter of the first movement and, unusually, its key center of D (now major instead of minor). A reference to the Latin mass written in the manuscript seems to point to the movement being an explicit memorial to Schumann, but it has also been described as a portrait of his wife Clara.
At any rate, the movement is distinctly hymn-like, notwithstanding a couple of forceful outbursts in the middle. Toward the end, Brahms does give the piano an extended cadenza-like improvisatory meditation.
Like Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms gives the initial presentation of the main theme in his Rondo finale to the soloist. The structure of the movement owes much to that of Beethoven’s Third Concerto (his only one in a minor key). The Rondo theme is every bit as passionate and intense as the first theme from the first movement, but it is more compact and more breathless. The pianist’s buildup to the orchestra’s takeover is natural and exhilarating. All of the themes of this finale are derived from the shape of this main tune, which in turn comes from the lyrical second theme of the first movement. These succeeding themes are more heroic and jubilant in nature.
Tragedy gradually gives way to triumph, but not without a battle, including a remarkable fugue episode. Leading to the grand conclusion, Brahms gives the pianist not one, but two cadenza passages, and there is even a pastoral bagpipe-like episode. The major key has completely taken over from the tragic minor at this point, and the windup to the conclusion is among one of the most famously exciting and satisfying in the concerto literature.
Some other thoughts on Week 3 (July 12–15, 2018)
The Brahms concerto is so big that it usually closes a program. Oundjian boldly places it in the typical concerto spot in the middle, but his choice of closing work should justify this. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s final composition, the Symphonic Dances, shows the composer in full command of his orchestral palette, without the need for the piano as a mediator. The focus of the three-movement work is more on the “symphonic” than the “dances.” These qualities and others make it a fine contrasting foil for the Brahms concerto.
The opening chamber music concert on Saturday (7/14), “Octets at Altitude,” is anchored by the breathtaking String Octet by Felix Mendelssohn. Surely one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed by a 16-year-old, the Octet immerses the listener in sumptuous joy, with the sounds of eight string instruments utilized to their utmost potential. After a performance, I recall making a social media post that said simply, “The Mendelssohn Octet exists. Believe in miracles.”
Finally, Sunday’s (7/15) concert features the second set of four seasons for violin and string orchestra, this time an “American” version, following last week’s “Argentinian” one. The work, the second violin concerto by Philip Glass, was played in Boulder in 2015. Here at the CMF, we will have the special opportunity to hear the concerto played by Robert McDuffie, the violinist for whom it was written.