BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Antoni Wit/ Idil Biret/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554088)
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Piano Concerto No. 1in D minor, Op. 15
Concert-Allegro withIntroduction, Op. 134
Johannes Brahms was horn in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bassplayer and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent inrelative poverty, and his early studies in music, for which he showed a naturalaptitude, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touringas a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him agrounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy helped hisfamily by playing the piano in dockside taverns.
In 1851 Brahms met the emigre Hungarian violinist Remenyi, whointroduced him to Hungarian dance music. Two years later he set out in hiscompany on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on therecommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Lisztheld court and might have been expected to show particular favour to afellow-countryman Remenyi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack oftact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in theyear, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim's agency. The meeting wasa 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 D??sseldorf,the first official appointment of his career and the last. Now in the music ofBrahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in thejournal he had once edited, the Neue Zeifschrift f??r Musik, declaringBrahms 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 spentin an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann's wife, thegifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm frienduntil her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would he able to returnin triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. Thisambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to manyto fulfil Schumann's early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, aboveall, the distinguished critic and writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successorto Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musicalassociations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted byWagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publiclyexpressed their opposition.
The monumental nature of much of the orchestral work of Brahms is inpart a sign of the great pains that went into its construction. His first pianoconcerto, which made no concessions to contemporary taste, was, it seems,conceived originally as a sonata for two pianos. This then became a symphony,to reach its final metamorphosis as the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op.
15, completed in this form in 1859. The original conception in 1854, came atthe time of Schumann's illness and was developed during the difficult finalyears of the latter's life, suggesting, particularly in its slow movement aRequiem for Schumann.
The concerto had its first private rehearsals, with Brahms as soloist,in Hanover in 1858, with Joachim conducting. They introduced the work to thepublic in January the following year to a polite reception. This relativesuccess persuaded Brahms to the more ambitious step of a performance in Leipzigwith the Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Julius Rietz, once Mendelsson'sassistant in D??sseldorf and now established in Leipzig in succession to NielsW. 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 criticfound nothing good to say about the concerto and even less to commend in Brahms'sperformance as a pianist, at the time his principal means of earning a living.
His later supporter Hanslick, indeed, writing three years later, found thatBrahms played more like a composer than a virtuoso, praising his honesty, hisinterpretative abilities, yet aware of inaccuracies however compelling thewhole performance. A subsequent performance of the concerto in Hamburg met abetter reception. In the following years the work gradually won wideracceptance, finding its way early into the repertoire of Clara Schumann, astrong advocate. The concerto is massive in its symphonic conception, describedby one contemporary as a symphony with piano obbligato, and clearlyposed problems to its first audiences, lacking any trivial or superficialbrilliance in its writing and calling for sustained attention over its veryconsiderable length. As the symphonies Brahms was to write might seem anextension of the work of Beethoven half a century earlier, so the first of histwo piano concertos seemed to continue and develop the pattern set byBeethoven's Emperor Concerto. In November 1855 Brahms had appeared as asoloist with orchestra for the first time in a performance of that concerto andincluded Beethoven's Fourth Concerto and Mozart's D minor and C minor
Concerto, in his concert repertoire at this time. These all had anobservable influence on his own writing.
The first movement opens with a feeling of tragic significance, themarked trills adding to its ominous nature, before a gentler element, aforetaste of the second subject, intervenes, followed by a sudden outburst fromthe orchestra, which returns to its opening mood, hushed only by the entry ofthe soloist. The pianist succumbs, in turn, to the initial theme with itsfierce trills, leading to the second subject, a hymn-like theme announced bythe soloist. The material is developed in a section that makes heavy demands onthe solo instrument and the recapitulation brings its own surprising shifts ofkey. The massive first movement is followed by a contrasting slow movement.
Over the melody of the Adagio Brahms wrote the words Benedictus quivenit in nomine Domini (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord), areference, it is supposed, to his master, Schumann, although he is also said tohave identified the movement with Clara Schumann. The liturgical reference waslater crossed out, in an attempt, to conceal, perhaps, such an overt display offeeling. A long-drawn theme is played by the strings, the bassoon joining thebass, with the piano adding its own meditation on the melody. As in the firstmovement, the horns have a characteristically evocative part to play, howeverbrief, while the piano continues its progress towards a new theme. The mood ofthe opening returns, extended in a cadenza of great serenity. The lastmovement, a Rondo, has a marked and energetic opening that may remindone of Beethoven, both in his Concerto in C minor and in other finalmovements, including, even, in some of the keyboard writing, that of the firstpiano sonata. The rondo form allows the inclusion of a number of contrastingideas, an F major episode introduced by the piano and developed by theorchestra and a later episode introduced by the violins, but treatedcontrapuntally, as is the principal theme, before it has gone too far into apurely lyrical mood. A cadenza, marked quasi fantasia and using a dominantpedal-point, a sustained note to underpin changes of harmony, a featurecharacteristic of Brahms, leads to a moving conclusion.
Schumann's first Introduction and Allegr