Monday, January 6, 2014

January's Miraculous Music: Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto

Markus Groh will play Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto this week
While people around here may question whether there's such a thing as “Farm Show Weather,” it seems we're going to be getting some of the coldest temperatures we've had in two decades this week: who knows what to expect with this yo-yo winter we've been having so far?

At least the forecast for this weekend is calling for temperatures in the upper-30s to mid-40s, maybe even 50s, perhaps the legendary “January Thaw.” That in itself sounds like a miracle.

The good news is, the January Masterworks Concert, billed as “Miraculous Music,” with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony is this weekend. And joining us will be German pianist Markus Groh who last appeared here in the 2006-2007 season to play Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto. This time, he'll be playing Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto.

The concerts are Saturday the 11th at 8pm and again Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

I'll be doing the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance, talking about the times in their composers' lives when these pieces were composed.

Here is our soloist playing two solo piano pieces: the first is an encore following a concert with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra – Franz Liszt's La Campanella, a solo piano version of a Paganini solo violin caprice,

and here's the E-flat Major Impromptu by Franz Schubert:

There are a few clips of interviews from German television available on-line, but this one at least has English subtitles:

For those of you who speak German, you can view two other interviews here where's he's playing some Brahms – and this one, recorded “at home” and includes some refrigerator art by his children, here. Even if you don't speak German, I think you can get the gist of it to enjoy a casual moment with an artist at home.

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It might seem odd that Brahms would only write two piano concertos since he was an acclaimed concert pianist himself, even if he performed only rarely compared to the typical traveling virtuoso. If he hated touring, he hated practicing more.

It's a huge concerto as one might expect, given the size and scope of the first piano concerto and the violin concerto he'd premiered only two years before. Not only is it a “combination of symphony and concerto,” it even includes an additional movement than was standard in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

One of the complaints (if one can imagine them) with the Violin Concerto had been the opening orchestral “introduction” before the soloist is first heard: this annoyed many soloists of the day. Even Pablo de Sarasate refused to play it because, in addition to that, he wasn't going to stand on stage at the beginning of the second movement doing nothing while the oboist played the melody!

So perhaps that's why his next concerto opens almost immediately with the soloist. Even then, it was still called “a symphony with piano obbligato.” Believe me, there's nothing optional about this piano part!

This performance of the complete concerto, clocking in at 48 minutes, is a 1977 concert recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic, conductor Claudio Abbado and pianist Maurizio Pollini.
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Brahms was fairly tight-lipped about his new concerto: no one knows when he began work on it – he'd started sketching it during a vacation in Italy in 1878 but put it aside to write the Violin Concerto instead. From then until he completed it in the summer of 1881, he apparently never mentioned it.

That summer, he wrote to a friend of his, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, how he'd finished “a tiny little concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.”

Now, we know from previous letters to her, Brahms liked to joke around about his music, though he was rarely ever modest (in fact, he was probably as much a jerk about it as his rival Wagner was an egomaniac in his own right). Consider the concerto's length – performances between 48 and 54 minutes? – it's hardly “tiny” even if you don't consider the demands on the soloist. I've heard too many pianists try to play Brahms' concertos who just don't have the strength or stamina to cut through his orchestral writing. It's more than just being able to play lots of notes very fast!

And then there's the scherzo.

This is the additional movement, placed second in the scheme of things. At about 10 minutes' length itself, one thing a listener (or a performer) would not call it is “wispy.” Scherzo in Italian means “joke,” but this is far from light-hearted music, much less “funny.”

Beethoven's scherzos were often the populist equivalent of his teacher Haydn's upper-crust minuets: think, if you want, that the traditional 18th Century minuet would be, say, a dance upstairs at Downton Abbey while Beethoven was writing something the downstairs staff might feel more at home with.

But Brahms often wrote fairly demonic scherzos – even some of his last piano pieces which were called “capriccios” are hardly capricious, but out-and-out mini-dramas. The “scherzo” of his C Minor Piano Quartet would make your hair stand on end.

This scherzo may be more robust – though the middle bit is certainly a breath of sunshine – and definitely dramatic. It's also in D Minor which, for Brahms, is a tonality he associates with tragedy. The Tragic Overture, in fact, written at the same time he was working on this concerto, is also in D Minor. But then, he wrote perhaps his most unbuttoned piece, the Academic Festival Overture that same summer!

When asked about the “change in tone” between the lofty, almost philosophical detachment of the first and the second movement's turmoil, Brahms supposedly explained he felt the first movement was too “harmless” and needed some passionate contrast!

Curiously, he had originally planned to add a scherzo to the Violin Concerto but then deleted it. We assume that's the movement that ended up in the 2nd Piano Concerto.

That said, the slow movement then returns to the loftier plane of the first movement, opening with a gorgeous cello solo – almost like chamber music embedded within the orchestra and, later, with the soloist.

The finale is yet another mood swing. It wasn't uncommon for concertos to have light-hearted dance-like finales – the Violin Concerto ended with a vast Hungarian Dance, not an uncommon way for Brahms to wrap things up. In an earlier generation, Ludwig Spohr ended some of his concertos with a polonaise or a Spanish bolero!

Taormina, Sicily
Here, though, you can definitely hear how the work was inspired not by one but by two vacations to Italy during the course of its composition. This is probably Brahms at his most human, enjoying himself. Traveling with friends who had trouble keeping up with him, Brahms loved Venice (and its wine) but especially Taormina on the coast of Sicily, where he loved to stand on the cliffs above the town overlooking the sea.

Brahms was 45 when he began sketching the concerto and was 48 when he gave it its premiere in 1881. Unlike the 1st Piano Concerto, premiered when he was 25 and when, he said, “three pairs of hands tried slowly to clap” before the hissing began, the 2nd Concerto was an immediate success. His friend, conductor Hans von Bülow, was also a highly regarded pianist who, if he wasn't conducting Brahms' music, might be playing it. And since Brahms was also a conductor of his own works, the two of them took the new concerto around Germany, sometimes switching roles as soloist or conductor. One program where they'd performed both concertos, Brahms would be the soloist in one, then von Bülow would be the soloist in the other.

Here's another performance of the first movement of the concerto with Rudolf Buchbinder the pianist and Nicholas Harnoncourt conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The score is the standard “study” version with the orchestra part reduced for a second piano.

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You can read more about the 20th Century works on the program – Michael Torke's “Javelin” and the suite from the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin by Bela Bartók shortly. The complete text of my pre-concert talk is available on my blog, Thoughts on a Train, which you can read here.

Dick Strawser

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