BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 / SCHUMANN: Introduction and Allegro, Op. 92 (Antoni Wit/ Idil Biret/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554089)
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Piano Concerto No. 2in B Flat Major
Introduction andAllegro appassionato, Op. 92
Johannes Brahms was born 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 histouring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him afirm grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy earned aliving for himself by playing the piano in dockside taverns. In 1851 Brahms metthe Hungarian violinist Remenyi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music.
Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, theirjourney taking them, on the recommendation of the violinist Joachim, to Weimar,where Franz Liszt held court, a visit from which Remenyi profited, while Brahmsfailed to impress the Master. Later in the year Brahms met Schumann, againthrough Joachim's agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
In 1849 Robert Schumann had moved with his pianist wife Clara toD??sseldorf as director of music, the first official appointment of his career.
In the music of Brahms that he now heard he detected a promise of greatness andpublished his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschriftf??r Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In thefollowing year Schumann, who had long suffered from periods of intensedepression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, wereto be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Clara Schumannand her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death, shortly beforehis own in 1897.
Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to returnin triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. Thisambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna in 1863 and establishedhimself there, seeming to many to fulfil, as the years went by, Schumann'sprophecy, much to the chagrin of Wagner and his supporters, who saw thesuccession to Beethoven in a very different light. Unlike the latter, Brahmsattempted no Gesamtkunstwerk and no amalgamation of the arts, as Liszthad attempted in his symphonic poems. To his friends Brahms seemed the championof pure or abstract music without any extra-musical associations.
'The long terror' was Brahms's description of his second piano concerto,a massively impressive work completed in 1881 and falling between the secondand third of the four symphonies in order of composition. Brahms had startedwork on the concerto in 1878 and finished the score in the summer of 1881,which he spent happily at Pressbaum, near Vienna. For its first performance inNovember 1881, the composer appeared as soloist in Pest, following this, laterin the same month, with performances nearer home with the Meiningen CourtOrchestra under Hans von B??low, who had espoused the cause of Brahms with theeagerness and enthusiasm that he had once shown for Wagner, before the lattereloped with his wife Cosima, illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt.
Brahms played the concerto in various towns with the Meiningen orchestra.
In Vienna, however, where the first performance of the concerto took place in1884, the critic Eduard Hanslick, a firm friend of Brahms, could only speakwith reserve of the composer's technical ability as a pianist whatever hisadmiration for the concerto itself, praising his rhythmic strength andmasculine authority, and remarking that Brahms now had more important things todo than practise a few hours a day, a kind excuse for any technicalimperfections there might have been in his playing.
The first movement of the B flat major Piano Concerto opens witha dialogue between the orchestra and soloist, initiated by the French horn. Theorchestra adds a second important element to the thematic material, to beinterrupted by a longish piano solo. On its return the orchestra has a thirditem of significance to add, before the piano turns expansively to the openingmelody, as the movement takes its impressive course. The second movement, aform of scherzo in the key of D minor, is on the same enormous scale. It isfollowed by a slow movement, in which a solo cello proposes the first, tranquiltheme, later to be varied by the soloist, before the appearance of othermaterial, the pianist playing music of simple and limpid beauty above a lowcello F sharp, accompanied by two clarinets. This brief passage of quietmeditation leads to the return of the first theme from the solo cello and theend of the movement. The concerto ends with a rondo that happily dispels anyanxieties that might have lurked in the more ominous comers of the precedingmovements, its mood inherited from Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms's greatpredecessors in Vienna.
In 1844 the Schumanns moved from Leipzig to the city of Dresden. RobertSchumann had suffered intermittently from depression, accentuated by the factthat he had now become the consort of a pianist of considerable fame, his ownr??le a decidedly secondary one during the concert tour of Russia that hadoccupied the earlier months of the year. Dresden, where Wagner had recentlybecome conductor at the opera, was, in spite of this, relatively conservative.
Here Schumann set about the task of teaching his young wife counterpoint, whilehe returned to his work as a composer with a certain renewal of energy. The Introductionand Allegro appassionato for piano, with orchestral accompaniment, was aproduct of the eventful year 1849, the period that brought a republicanuprising in Dresden, the hurried departure of Wagner, who had been involvedopenly with more extreme factions, and general disturbance, as the unrest wassuppressed with Prussian help. Throughout the months of tumult, during whichthe Schumanns had taken refuge outside the city, Robert Schumann continued towrite music, completing the present work during the later part of September, amonth that brought songs and piano pieces. The gentle Introduction to Opus92 allows orchestral melodies to appear through the evocative piano arpeggios,first from the clarinet, then from the French horn, before the piano tooassumes a melodic r??le. The Allegro appassionato is dominated by theopening figure from the orchestra, but largely justifies its descriptive title,a work for piano with orchestral accompaniment.