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Hyperion Records

CDA67550 - Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2
CDA67550
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Andrés Villalta
Release date: August 2006
Total duration: 61 minutes 22 seconds

INTERNATIONAL PIANO AWARDS 2006 READERS' CHOICE

'Consummate musicianship and formidable technical control. The warmth and beauty of tone are never sacrificed even in the most thickly textured writing of the first movement. The Finale in particular is quite dazzling, Hamelin's quicksilver dexterity bringing an effervescent humour and brilliant rhythmic incisiveness to the music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Canadian's magisterial technique means that he dispatches with feline ease passages such as the notorious whispering double octaves in the scherzo' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The grand romantic manner comes easily to Hamelin. Modern discipline, too, and his combination of finger power, firm engineering, caressing gentleness and playful wit makes him a natural for Brahms's second piano concerto' (The Times)

'Hamelin makes for a brilliant soloist and fine Brahms interpreter here … the result is one of the more successful and satisfying Brahms Seconds to come down the pike in quite a while … the four Op 119 pieces that fill out the disc are a nice bonus, and played by Hamelin with the caressing tenderness of one who understands the ache of Brahms' winter regret. Strongly recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hamelin strides forth with a technical magnificence that is glittering and propulsive, but also with a light and shade that directs to the music's inner sanctum' (International Piano)

'Hamelin consistently beguiles the ear … in the scherzo of the concerto, he uses clean rhythm to bring excitement to No 3 without overwhelming the music. His light touch in the first piece emphasizes both its dreaminess as well as its sparse modernity: Schoenberg's famous appellation 'Brahms the progressive' is singularly applicable here. The engineering is up to Hyperion's usual high standard, with ideal balances between piano and orchestra in the concerto … this is an excellent release and an important landmark in Hamelin's evolving discography' (ClassicsToday.com)

'Hamelin and conductor Andrew Litton achieve a kind of mind-meld in their reading of the Brahms Second Concerto … this is music-making of the highest order, intensely communicative and attuned to the composer's mastery of narrative form and structure' (The Absolute Sound, USA)

Piano Concerto No 2
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Allegro non troppo  [17'04]
Andante  [11'27]

Hyperion’s Record of the Month for August features Marc-André Hamelin and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton in a compelling account of Brahms’s huge Piano Concerto No 2. This work blends the principles of symphony and concerto in a manner that invokes chamber music, while also representing the culmination of everything that Brahms had learned as a lifelong connoisseur of pianistic technique. Cast in four large movements, this concerto can be seen as a kind of pianistic autobiography, from the young virtuoso, through the D minor anguish of the scherzo and the self-communing chamber-like slow movement, to the Hungarian rhythms of the more ebullient song-and-dance finale. The Four Piano Pieces Op 119 written in the composer’s final years—three ravishingly inward and autumnal Intermezzi offset by a virile and heroic Rhapsodie—complete this rounded portrait of the composer.

Marc-André Hamelin’s pianistic authority and, when required, thrilling virtuosity are underpinned by a deep understanding of this epic work. He is magnificently partnered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton, and his intimate dialogue with the solo cello in the slow movement is a high-point of this richly fulfilling interpretation. Marc-André’s musicianship is further revealed in his poignant and searching performance of the four late solo pieces. For lovers of this composer, and of great piano-playing, this is essential listening.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Brahms completed his Second Piano Concerto at Pressbaum near Vienna in the summer of 1881 and dedicated it to Eduard Marxsen, his old piano teacher in Hamburg. The composer took the solo role in the premiere, given in Budapest on 9 November 1881, before playing the work on a triumphant tour of Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Its reception was very unlike that accorded to his youthful D minor Concerto, completed in 1859, which had only slowly gained acceptance.

Yet the B flat Concerto manifests many paradoxes of scale and utterance. The piano part is less overtly virtuosic than in the First Concerto, but presents the soloist with even greater technical challenges. The solo part, especially in the first movement, also represents the culmination of everything Brahms had learned as a lifelong connoisseur of pianistic technique. Yet this huge concerto is more like chamber music writ large, a continuation and expansion of his approach in his piano quartets and Horn Trio, with many effects of intimate instrumental dialogue (horn and piano in the first movement; cello and piano in the third). Despite this intimacy of discourse—witness the very opening, growing from a horn-call of pure romance, answered by a piano solo of musing reverie—the concerto is nevertheless built on ample, quasi-symphonic lines, with four movements instead of three. And the first two of them, at least, are full of heroic bravura: hear the grand tutti the orchestra launches when it gets hold of the horn–piano theme. The whole work displays a leonine combination of gentleness and massive strength—but strength which is held in reserve or employed for athletic relaxation.

Thus Brahms seems to meld the principles of concerto and symphony—especially in the spacious first movement, Allegro non troppo, which grows organically into a grand tonal network of interconnected ideas. The piano does not merely repeat the themes of the orchestral tutti but engages in a wide-ranging dialogue by continually varying them. Despite the generally optimistic tone, darkness and passion have their places—the former represented by sudden glimpses of distant tonal areas, the latter by the more choleric of the piano’s monologues. After this the D minor scherzo, Allegro appassionato, hints at real tragedy. Its first subject has an impetuous zeal, while the second is a haunting tune full of submissive pathos. An angry development then leads to the trio section’s grand, Handelian D major theme before the scherzo music returns, urgent and volatile to the last.

The spirit of chamber music is most marked in the Andante slow movement, which is framed by a deeply expressive cello solo, a kind of sublime lullaby which many have seen as an anticipation of the song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (‘My sleep grows ever quieter’) that Brahms was to compose in 1886. The piano never has this tune, but muses upon its harmonic background in filigree passagework and decoration of the utmost plasticity. The overall impression is of self-communing improvisation, where motivic development dissolves into the stream of consciousness. There is a central episode, dominated by reflective piano arpeggios and clarinets in thirds, that might seem an exercise in pure sonority. Yet what the clarinets play is an exact quotation from Brahms’s song Todessehnen (‘Yearning for death’), composed three years earlier but not published until 1882 (as Op 86 No 6)—an unusual self-quotation for this composer, confirming the deep personal significance of the movement.

The finale, Allegretto grazioso, releases the accumulated tensions in a playful rondo, strewing tunes around (many in Brahms’s beloved Hungarian rhythms) like unconsidered pearls. This is a complex fusion of rondo and sonata form that wears its intricacy with insouciance. The piano summons up lilting, instantly memorable, themes in seemingly artless profusion. Yet there is immense artfulness here: not only in the many subtle rhythmic contrasts, but also in the ‘gypsy’ languor of the second-subject tune, in the Mozartian wit of the epigrams bandied about between soloist and orchestra, and in the easy confidence of scoring that allows Brahms to write grand, full-hearted tuttis without once requiring trumpets or drums.

It may not be implausible to hear this concerto as a kind of pianistic autobiography—by a composer for whom the piano, and piano music, lay at the centre of his creativity. The first movement’s quality of carefully structured improvisation plausibly presents a portrait of the young virtuoso, responding to the voice of Nature (the horn theme) with a hugely confident display of pianistic technique. But the scherzo intervenes, in D minor—for Brahms a key of catastrophic associations (the First Piano Concerto, begun in the aftermath of Schumann’s suicide attempt and incarceration in an asylum, makes this clear). However the robust and enlivening ‘Handelian’ trio perhaps represents the saving grace of study, the power of the music of the past to strengthen and stabilize the composer—as Brahms’s Baroque studies had strengthened him, issuing at length in his Op 24 Handel Variations.

The slow movement would then indicate a period of withdrawal, of self-communing at the keyboard, almost of self-effacement. In Brahms’s own solo output this mood is most clearly felt in the long series of late pieces which had begun during the 1870s with his Op 76 Klavierstücke. The wonderful main theme, however, is entrusted to the solo cello: the piano muses round it, decorates it, dialogues with the cello as a subordinate partner. The extent to which this movement resembles a cello–piano duet suggests (quite apart from the tenderness of the main idea) some imaginative link with Clara Schumann. Perhaps Brahms was thinking of the Romanze slow movement of her own youthful Piano Concerto of 1835, which is even more of a cello–piano duo. The song-quotation, too, is probably connected with his feelings for her, especially where the text (by Max von Schenkendorf) speaks of ‘the secret heavy burden’ on the poet’s soul, which can only be lifted by union with ‘the sisterly being’ of the beloved. The main tune’s anticipation of Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer then fits into a potentially tragic context, for they are both songs about death, or the yearning for it. But the finale, with its Hungarian rhythms, its relaxed evocation of dance and song, counterbalances this by releasing an entirely different aspect of Brahms’s pianism: his sizeable output of music for enjoyment and relaxation, most notably the Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder-Walzer. This finale remains of the highest artistic quality (and is no relaxation for the pianist); but the popular elements blent in it are essential to any rounded portrait of its composer.

What was lacking in this portrait, of course, was an epilogue: a study of the composer in old age. For that we must turn to Brahms’s final harvest of solo piano music. This comprises four sets of pieces published as his Opp 116–119: twenty pieces in all, though he seems to have destroyed some others. Mostly they were composed around his sixtieth year, in 1891–1893. Into these works, short yet infinitely subtle, he distilled a lifetime’s meditation on the piano’s capabilities. A few of the pieces afford brief glimpses of the old fire and energy, but the predominant character—especially in those pieces he titled ‘Intermezzo’—is reflective, musing, deeply introspective, and at the same time always exploring harmonic and textural effect, rhythmic ambiguity, structural elision and wayward fantasy.

The first three of the four Op 119 Klavierstücke are exactly such Intermezzi. The opening number, in B minor, is a ravishing Adagio which Clara Schumann (the first person to whom Brahms showed most of these late pieces) characterized as ‘a grey pearl’. It derives its material from a chain of falling thirds, a formula which Brahms used in many contexts. The main thematic idea is a downward arpeggio whose individual notes are sustained to form ambiguous vertical harmony, suggesting both B minor and D major, which is the focus of the very slightly contrasted central idea.

The second and third pieces both begin with rhythmic figures involving repeated notes: but whereas in the E minor Intermezzo (marked Andantino un poco agitato) this feature produces a nervous pulse-beat in dactylic rhythm, like a charming stammer, in the C major (Grazioso e giocoso) it produces a skittish 6/8 quaver motion with a nonchalant melody in the middle voice. Also, while the E minor Intermezzo evolves quite a large form, the central section transforming its main idea into an elegant E major waltz, the C major is shorter, with deft touches of humour, capriciously dissolving towards the end into fragile, rainbow-like arpeggios.

In contrast to these gentle Intermezzi the E flat Rhapsodie, Brahms’s last piano piece, is cast in the heroic mould traditionally associated with its key. It has much the same virile manner we encounter in his two Op 79 Rhapsodies, but it is more compressed, creating its form with a freedom and spontaneity appropriate to its late date. As a foil to the principal tune—a muscular, pounding affair in 2/4 time with asymmetrical ‘Hungarian’ five-bar phrasing—it evolves a subsidiary idea of tolling repeated notes with dissonant harmonies beneath, and an echt-Brahmsian second subject in C minor with a powerful triplet rhythm. A contrasting grazioso section is almost a parody of salon style, with its harped chords and tripping grace-notes. Brahms delays the return of the main theme, presenting witty and allusive variations of it. It makes its eventual reappearance at the Rhapsody’s climax, but is almost immediately deconstructed in the coda, which ends this otherwise ebullient work—and Brahms’s piano output—in a stern E flat minor. This, almost certainly not by coincidence, had also been the key of his earliest published piano piece, the Op 4 Scherzo.

Calum MacDonald © 2006

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