Piano Concerto No.2

Johannes Brahms

Piano Concerto No.2 in Bb major

Op. 83

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Portly, grey-bearded, and a celebrity, on the eve of his 45th birthday, Johannes Brahms began sketching themes for the Second Piano Concerto following the first of eight trips to Italy. He put these aside, however, to compose the D major Violin Concerto. Still in a symphonic mode after his Second Symphony, he added a scherzo to the B flat Piano Concerto's otherwise traditional three-movement form. Brahms finished composing it on July 7, 1881.

Before the Budapest premiere on November 9, however, he tried the music at Meiningen with Hans von Bülow's orchestra, during closed rehearsals of other repertory. He returned there after Budapest for a public performance on November 27, conducted by Bülow, who talked up the work to his former father-in-law, Franz Liszt. Liszt requested a score, and later on wrote to Brahms, "At first reading this work seemed to me a little gray in tone; I have, however, come gradually to understand it. It possesses the pregnant character of a distinguished work of art, in which thought and feeling move in noble harmony." Praise indeed from an acknowledged old master, whose 1853 invitation to join his "New German Music Verein" Brahms had cursorily declined.

Brahms incorporated several quite daring (for him) changes in procedure. He jettisoned the usual orchestral exposition in the opening movement; after the solo horn plays a wistfully expansive first theme with piano arpeggios, extended by the strings, the soloist unleashes a virtuosic cadenza that propels us into the exposition. Additional themes pour forth as if from a cornucopia, always paced by the piano, leading to a tempestuous development section that never loses sight of the opening horn theme. Its formal restatement signals a mostly benign reprise. There's a brilliant close, though, which poses a serious structural problem for soloist and conductor: how do you keep the ensuing scherzo from sounding anticlimactic, or worse yet, superfluous?

Without appearing to understate or rein-in the opening Allegro non troppo movement, it dare not be played to the hilt. The entire work's structural fulcrum has to be the end of the scherzo, an Allegro appassionato in D minor with a soft-grained second theme; otherwise, the remaining two movements risk outstaying their welcome. Helpfully, the scherzo boasts a brilliant D major trio section, and a tempestuous close. But it must sound harrowing in order for the ensuing Andante to work its calming charm.

The solo cello begins and ends the third movement with a poignant B flat melody that Brahms recalled five years later in his song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer. The middle portion, however, grows expressively high-strung until the clarinets restore calm with a piano-accompanied duet of russet beauty.

Brahms marked his sonata-rondo finale Allegretto grazioso, although it accelerates later on as the solo writing becomes more and more brilliant, but this never becomes threateningly powerful. Some have claimed to hear "gypsies" in the string writing; but even if so, it would be what Hungarians call Verbunkos, subliminally remembered from Brahms' teenage tours with the violinist Reményi, who first introduced him to Liszt.