PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83
EMIL GILELS, PIANO
FRITZ REINER, CONDUCTOR
The greatest piano concerto?
For a classical pianist, there are certain works that are so awe-inspiring that they are difficult to write about. Where does one begin? The inadequacy of words, the lack of effective metaphors, the paucity of comparisons to anything in nature—all are obstacles to speaking about such works.
Rather than make clumsy attempts at natural comparisons—the Brahms B-flat Concerto is the Everest of piano concertos, the Brahms B-flat is the planet Jupiter, the Brahms B-flat is the Amazon jungle, etc—all of which fall short—I’ll just say I consider it to be the greatest piano concerto. There are many, many other pianists who would say the same thing.
At 45 minutes in length, it is also one of the longest. There are, to be sure, concertos that are longer—Busoni’s and Furtwangler’s, for instance. But in terms of magical content, the Brahms B-flat is packed with beauties that other concertos lack.
Warning: lengthy personal story to follow that has very little to do with the music!
I first heard the Brahms B-flat when I was a junior in high school. You may remember my habit, already acquired at that age, of reading record review magazines. This habit was not only so I could hopefully fill my life with qualitatively fine listening experiences, but it was also out of financial stinginess—I knew I could only spend whatever money I had ONCE on the recording of a given work, so it had to count. Consequently, it did not take me long to discover that the recording of the Brahms Second by Russian pianist Emil Gilels, with the Chicago Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, was highly regarded by many as the best of the best. I bought it.
For whatever reason, a strong first memory I have of the work occurred on an overcast, autumn Saturday morning. I had been listening to the record for the entire previous week, and I was out in the street, passing football with a friend. So strongly was the music going on in my head that I could only peripherally pay attention to catching and passing the ball. It was like I was sitting in the front row of a great concert by a great performer–while passing football.
I thought to myself, I hope that SOME DAY I’ll be able to play this great work. As it turned out, I did get that opportunity, but not exactly in a way I had hoped for.
Eight years after this football-with-Brahms morning, I was in the doctoral program at CCM at the University of Cincinnati. I had won the piano concerto competition playing the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. In those days, the orchestra conductor, who would have been one of the judges of the competition, asked you what you would like to play with the orchestra, and whatever concerto you chose would be on a concert the following school year. I grabbed the chance to say the Brahms Second. He said fine, let’s plan on it next May—a whole year away.
That sounded great to me, it would give me plenty of time to learn and get comfortable with this behemoth of a work, perhaps playing it through with a second piano accompaniment dozens of times in preparation for the orchestral concert.
That contest occurred in May. I went to Istanbul during the summer to marry Tiraje. But after we were married, Tiraje had to wait three months before she received clearance to come and live to the U.S.—a standard wait time even in those pre-terrorism days. So, I arrived back in Cincinnati in mid-September by myself, thinking of course that I still had plenty of time to learn the Brahms.
By complete chance, in early October, I happened to glance at a calendar of events for the fall and saw that the conductor had moved the concert from May to early December, giving me just two months to learn the piece, which I had not even started on.
Needless to say, it was—for me—a gargantuan and tension-producing task. I found an opportunity to try the work out in late October in a South Carolina concert, and felt reasonably confident with it. As it happened, the very day I was scheduled to play with the orchestra was the day Tiraje, pregnant with Jason, arrived in Cincinnati, with all her suitcases and her cat, Peanut. It was a hectic day. The concert came and went, and was a good—and memorable—experience.
My experience of having to learn a challenging work in a short period of time is, by the way, in no way exceptional for pianists. It just happened to be MY particular experience.
This is Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. The First was hardly less imposing. That one had been written in 1858 when Brahms was just 25. Although it has but three movements—compared to the four of the Second Concerto—it is also a lengthy work, demanding a lot from both the pianist and orchestra.
Twenty-three years went by before Brahms revisited the piano concerto form. By that time—1881—Brahms was known all over the western world as one of the greatest composers. The reception the concerto received at its premiere performance–with Brahms as soloist, of course–was overwhelmingly positive–just as it has been right up to the present day. Being the landmark of pianism and concerto-writing that it is, the Brahms Second, throughout its history, has attracted the finest pianists, playing at their very best. Concerts featuring the work are predictable sell-outs. Because of its length, the concerto is often either the entire first, or entire second, half of a program.
Just a couple of other remarks.
• Brahms thought of his concertos—two of them for piano, one for violin, and one involving both violin and cello—as being SYMPHONIC in nature. The natural evolution of the concerto had been such that the performance of a concerto appeared to be conversational to an audience—one felt that the soloist and the orchestra were two entities having a musical conversation: sometimes one would speak, sometimes the other, and sometimes both at the same time. But Brahms integrated the solo instrument into the very fabric of the composition. One could easily—and correctly—think of his concertos as symphonies in which a solo instrument is woven into the overall fabric. The piano and the orchestra are one.
• It cannot be overstated how great a pianist Brahms himself was. It is obvious from his compositions, as well as the historical record, that he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, from his late teens onward. He had it all—enormous power, the widest dynamic spectrum, agility beyond belief. His works—especially this concerto—demonstrate this truth. Octaves, trills, scales in thirds, huge fortissimos that must cut through the sound of a full orchestra, the tenderest pianissimo phrases played with the most legato touch—everything is here.
• Not that it is necessary to know, with reference to the B-flat Concerto, but Brahms’ style was essentially set by the time he was twenty. Early Brahms, late Brahms—it is all cut from the same cloth. The denseness of his harmony—eight note chords being not uncommon at all—and the presence, within the same composition, of drastically differing moods—the alternation of the martial with the tender. One hears these things just as much in his first pieces as his last.
The work has four movements. As is so often the case with multi-movement great works like this one, it is not for me to suggest one movement over another. The majesty of the first movement, from its opening horn motive—the tumult of the second movement, with its incredible pianissimo (and fortissimo) octave passages—the lyricism of the third movement with its lengthy and beautiful cello solo, performed here by the great Janos Starker—and the grace of the fourth movement, which sounds light and breezy but is treacherously difficult to actually play—these are just the briefest descriptions of this work.
What I can tell you for certain is that everything I’ve said about the work falls woefully short of describing its glory.
1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 16:04
3rd movement 24:17
4th movement 36:21