BRAHMS: Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 17 (Christian Kohn/ Silke-Thora Matthies/ Toonstudio Van Geest) (Naxos: 8.555849)
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Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Four Hand Piano Music, Vol. 17
Piano Concerto No. 1
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, as a pianist rather than as a string-player, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy was able to use his talents by teaching and by playing the piano in summer inns, rather than in the dockside taverns of popular legend, a romantic idea which he himself seems later to have encouraged.
In 1851 Brahms met the émigré Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Reményi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim's agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, the first official appointment of his career and the last. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann's wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many to fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.
The monumental nature of much of the orchestral work of Brahms is in part a sign of the great pains that went into its construction. His first piano concerto, which made no concessions to contemporary taste, was conceived originally as a sonata for two pianos, following his earlier three piano sonatas. This was written during a difficult period in the composer's life, after the breakdown of Schumann, to whose encouragement he owed a great deal, and the perceived necessity of offering practical support to Clara Schumann and her young family. The sonata then became a symphony, with some help in orchestration from his Göttingen friend Julius Otto Grimm, to reach its final metamorphosis as the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15, completed in this form in 1859. Developed during the difficult final years of Schumann's life in the asylum at Endenich, where he was being treated, it suggests, particularly in its slow movement, to which Brahms added the words Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini, a Requiem for Schumann. Brahms also seems to have identified the slow movement with Clara Schumann and recent scholars have pointed out a possible reference to E.T.A. Hoffmann's novel Kater Murr and the fictional Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, with whom Brahms sometimes identified himself.
The concerto had its first private rehearsals, with Brahms as soloist, in Hanover in 1858, with Joachim conducting. They introduced the work to the public in January the following year to a polite reception. This relative success persuaded Brahms to the more ambitious step of a performance in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Julius Rietz, once Mendelsson's assistant in Düsseldorf and now established in Leipzig in succession to Niels W. Gade. The reaction of the audience to such a demanding work was hostile, with ironic applause from one or two and hissing from many. A well known critic found nothing good to say about the concerto and even less to commend in Brahms's performance as a pianist, at the time his principal means of earning a living. His later supporter Hanslick, indeed, writing three years later, found that Brahms played more like a composer than a virtuoso, praising his honesty, his interpretative abilities, yet aware of inaccuracies, however compelling the whole performance. A subsequent performance of the concerto in Hamburg met a better reception. In the following years the work gradually won wider acceptance, finding its way early into the repertoire of Clara Schumann, a strong advocate. The concerto is massive in its symphonic conception, described by one contemporary as a symphony with piano obbligato, and clearly posed problems to its first audiences, lacking any trivial or superficial brilliance in its writing and calling for sustained attention over its very considerable length. As the symphonies Brahms was to write might seem an extension of the work of Beethoven half a century earlier, so the first of his two piano concertos seemed to continue and develop the pattern set by Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. In November 1855 Brahms had appeared as a soloist with orchestra for the first time in a performance of that concerto and included Beethoven's Fourth Concerto and Mozart's D minor and C minor Concertos in his concert repertoire at this time. These all had an observable influence on his own writing.
The first movement opens with a feeling of tragic significance, the marked trills adding to its ominous nature, before a gentler element, a foretaste of the second subject, intervenes, followed by a sudden outburst from the orchestra, which returns to its opening mood, hushed only by the entry of the soloist. The pianist succumbs, in turn, to the initial theme with its fierce trills, leading to the second subject, a hymn-like theme announced by the soloist. The material is developed in a section that makes heavy demands on the solo instrument and the recapitulation brings its own surprising shifts of key. The massive first movement is followed by a contrasting slow movement. A long-drawn theme is played by the strings, here the second piano, with the soloist adding a meditation on the melody. The solo instrument continues its progress towards a new theme. The mood of the opening returns, extended in a cadenza of great serenity. The last movement, a Rondo, has a marked and energetic opening that may remind one of Beethoven, both in his Concerto in C minor and in other final movements, including, even, in some of the keyboard writing, that of the first piano sonata. The rondo form allows the in