Length: c. 50 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (1st = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 10, 1927, with soloist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Pop quiz: what do Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms have in common – aside from their fame as composers? Why, Italy, of course, which plays a prominent part in their lives. Brahms isn’t normally included in this all-star lineup, yet he visited more often than any of them, eight times in all, between 1878 and 1893. But he left no obvious musical souvenirs of the land of the sun, lemon blossoms, and ancient civilizations, being always wary of assigning extra-musical meanings to his scores. Still, there does seem to be an uncommon warmth and expansiveness about the B-flat Concerto, alongside its grander statements, that may be attributable to the influence of Italy.
Sketches for the Concerto were begun in 1878, immediately after the composer’s return from his first Italian visit, on which he was accompanied to Rome, Naples, and Sicily by his friend and cultural mentor, the Viennese surgeon Dr. Theodor Billroth. Some sketches completed, he set the Piano Concerto aside to work on his Violin Concerto for Joseph Joachim. Op. 83 was completed in 1881, after his second Italian visit, the itinerary this time including Venice, Florence, Siena, and Orvieto.
The premiere of the B-flat Concerto took place in Budapest on November 9, 1881, with the composer as soloist and another distinguished pianist-composer, Ferenc Erkel, on the podium. Franz Liszt, with whom Brahms had had some less than pleasant encounters in the past and who was in the audience, was uncharacteristically effusive in his praise of the Concerto. The first Vienna performance, by Brahms with the Meiningen Orchestra under Hans von Bülow, took place three weeks later and was on that occasion heard by the celebrated critic – and Brahms partisan – Eduard Hanslick, whose enthusiasm for the work did not, however, constrain him from declaring that as a pianist Brahms’ best days were behind him.
The Concerto is dedicated not to any of the great personages of Brahms’ acquaintance but to the Hamburg piano pedagogue Eduard Marxsen, who took over the musical training of the 10-year-old Brahms, rescuing him from the prospect of a tour of the United States as a child prodigy. Marxsen also encouraged his young charge’s predilection for improvising at the piano, a step that preceded his beginning to compose in earnest at the age of 14.
The B-flat Concerto dates from the start of Brahms’ ripest maturity, the period when his fame had reached a peak throughout Europe and his physical image as we know it best was fixed: bearded and corpulent. It was also the time when one of his more tiresome quirks began to mark his correspondence: his cutesy references to his scores, the larger they got, as “miniatures.” Thus, the sketches for Op. 83 were described to Dr. Billroth as “some little piano pieces.” He went further with his confidante Elisabeth von Herzogenberg: “It is a tiny, tiny little concerto [Konzerterl] with a tiny, tiny little scherzo [Scherzerl].” This for what may well have been the largest piano concerto written to that time in terms of its complexity, thematic variety, and sheer length.
The Concerto in B-flat, in four movements rather than the usual three, opens with a mood-setting horn call that seems to gather all the other instruments, with the piano responding to its graceful melody with its own, equally graceful arpeggios before embarking on a thorny cadenza that announces the virtuoso nature of the movement. But it is a virtuosity neither omnipresent nor strained. Whenever one feels the drama is on the verge of getting out of hand, the composer reintroduces a placating element, the opening horn theme, played either by that instrument or by different sections of the orchestra.
Although Brahms labeled the second movement a scherzo (or “tiny, tiny little scherzo”) – hardly a form commonly found in a concerto – it is the most dramatic of the four movements, at the outset a crashing workout for the piano, followed and contrasted by a yearning, mellow theme for the violins and a noble trio section, prior to the repetition of the opening histrionics.
The songful, nocturnal slow movement is based entirely on its opening, the solo cello’s eight-measure phrase, which is passed to the violins and then expanded by the piano – a melody to which Brahms would later return for his haunting song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (Ever gentler grows my slumber).
The first impression of the rondo finale is one of gracious relaxation, but the movement is hardly of a single piece or mood, witness the increasing brilliance – building to a pair of aggressive climaxes – of the solo, before returning to the skipping opening theme, and the crunching final orchestral crescendo, by which time the mood has changed from the gracious to the thunderous, in which vein the Concerto ends.