Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Movement 2: Allegro appassionato
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Allegretto grazioso
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.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2006