Always self-critical, Brahms worked on the Second Piano Concerto for three years. He wrote to Clara Schumann: “I want to tell you that I have written a very small piano concerto with a very small and pretty scherzo.” Ironic, as he was describing a giant of a piece.
The opening is deceptively benign: a lone horn calls out a simple eight-note melody, answered by the piano rising quietly from the lowest depths. An ensuing cadenza encompasses the entire keyboard.
The “small scherzo” is by turns turbulent and winsome. The slow movement begins with a wondrous song spun out by solo cello, later with the oboe.
Ebullient elegance and charm mark the finale’s main theme. Here Brahms’ creativity is virtually endless.
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
The B-flat Concerto (1881) 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, Brahms described the sketches for Op. 83 to his friend and cultural mentor, the Viennese surgeon Dr. Theodor Billroth, as “some little piano pieces.” He went further with his friend and 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 (of which the listener is never made aware), thematic variety, and sheer length.
The Concerto in B-flat, in four movements rather than the usual three, opens with a marvelous, 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 in no uncertain terms. But it is a virtuosity neither omnipresent nor strained. Whenever one thinks 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 in fact the most dramatic and tempestuous of the four movements, at the outset a crashing, battering 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 exquisitely songful, nocturnal slow movement is based entirely on the solo cello’s eight-measure phrase, which is subsequently passed to the violins and then expanded by the piano – a melody to which Brahms would later return for one of his most haunting songs, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (Ever gentler grows my slumber).
The impression of the rondo finale is, as previously suggested, one of gracious relaxation; but it is hardly of a single piece or mood, to wit 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. — Herbert Glass