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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS / LISZT: Piano Concertos
Johannes Brahms (1833- 1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major
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, for which he showed a natural aptitude, developed his talent
to such an extent that there was talk of his touring as a prodigy at the age of
eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a firm grounding in the technical
basis of composition, while the boy earned a living for himself by playing the
piano in dockside taverns.
Brahms met the Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian
dance music. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour,
their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the violinist Joachim, to
Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court, a visit from which Reményi profited,
while Brahms failed to impress the Master. Later in the year Brahms met
Schnmann, again through Joachim's agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.
Schumann detected a promise of greatness in the music of Brahms and published
his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik,
declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven.
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 in 1863 and established himself there,
seeming to many to fulfil, as the years went by, Schumann's prophecy, much to
the chagrin of Wagner and his supporters, who saw the succession to Beethoven
in a very different light. Unlike the latter Brahms attempted no Gesammtkunstwerk
and no amalgamation of the arts, as Liszt had attempted in his symphonic poems.
To his friends Brahms seemed the champion of pure or abstract music without any
long terror" was Brahms's description of his second piano concerto, a
massively impressive work completed in 1881 and falling between the second and
third of the four symphonies in order of composition. Brahms had started work
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 in November,
1881, the composer appeared as soloist in Pest, following this, later in the
same month, with performances nearer home with the Meiningen Court Orchestra
under Hans von Bülow, who had espoused the cause of Brahms with the eagerness
and enthusiasm that he had once shown for Wagner, before the latter eloped 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 in 1884, the critic
Eduard Hanslick, a firm friend of Brahms, could only speak with reserve of the
composer's technical ability as a pianist whatever his admiration for the
concerto itself, praising his rhythmic strength and masculine authority, and
remarking that Brahms now had more important things to do than practise a few
hours a day, a kind excuse for any technical imperfections there might have
been in his playing.
movement of the B flat major Piano Concerto opens with a dialogue between the
orchestra and soloist, initiated by the French horn. The orchestra adds a
second important element to the thematic material, to be interrupted by a
longish piano solo. On its return the orchestra has a third item of
significance to add, before the piano turns expansively to the opening melody,
as the movement takes its impressive course.
movement, a form of scherzo, in the key of D minor, is on the same enormous
scale. It is followed by a slow movement, in which a solo cello proposes the
first, tranquil theme, later to be varied by the soloist, before the appearance
of other material, the pianist playing music of simple and limpid beauty above
a low cello F sharp, accompanied by two clarinets. This brief passage of quiet
meditation leads to the return of the first theme from the solo cello and the
end of the movement.
concerto ends with a rondo that happily dispels any anxieties that might have
lurked in the more ominous comers of the preceding movements, its mood
inherited from Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms's great predecessors in Vienna.
Liszt (1811- 1886)
Concerto No. 2 in A Major
was born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of a steward employed by
Haydn's former patrons, the Esterhazy fanlily. As a boy he showed extraordinary
musical ability, and money was raised, after he had played to the Hungarian
nobility in Pressburg (the modern Bratislava), to send him to Vienna, where he
took lessons from Czerny and was kissed by Beethoven, impressed by the boy's
playing, in spite of the fact that he was almost stone deaf. In 1823 the family
moved to Paris, a city that Liszt was later to regard as essentially his home.
he undertook concert tours as a pianist and it was here, in 1831, that he heard
the violinist Paganini, and resolved to follow his example.
became one of the most remarkable pianists of his time, fascinating audiences
in a way that has its modern parallel in the adulation accorded to much less
worthy popular performers. A liaison with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie
d'Agoult, the mother of his three children, led to extensive travel abroad, and
after their separation to an important change of direction when, in 1848, he
settled in Weimar as Director of Music to the Grand Duchy, solaced there by the
presence of Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, estranged wife of a Russian prince.
Here he turned his attention to the creation of a new form of orchestral work,
the symphonic poem, and it was here that he wrote the final versions of his two
The last 25
years of his life Liszt described as a 'vie trifurquêe', largely divided, as
time went on, between Rome, Weimar and Budapest. In 1860 Princess
Sayn-Wittgenstein had gone to Rome, hoping to have a first marriage annulled,
as it had already been by the Russian Orthodox Church, and thus to be able to
marry Liszt. He followed, in October 1861 reaching Rome, where he expected to
marry. Permission, however, was not granted. Liszt settled in the city, lodging
with a religious order, although not without material comforts, and turning his
attention to church music, while the Princess continued her 24-volume study of
the interior causes of the exterior weakness of the Catholic Church, living
elsewhere in Rome. In 1869 he undertook to return from time to time to Weimar
to teach and in 1871 he made a similar undertaking to Budapest, where he was
regarded as something of a national hero. He died in 1886 during the course of
a visit to Bayreuth, where his unforgiving daughter Cosima, the widow of
Richard Wagner, continued the festival of her husband's works.
legacy as a composer is a remarkable one. As a performer he led the way to new
feats of virtuosity, a fact that has led some to regard his work as nothing
more than facile showmanship. Yet even in those popular transcriptions where an
element of the meretricious may seem to predominate, there is evidence of a
strong and extraordinary musical intelligence and originality. His influence on
his contemporaries was considerable: subsequent generations have found in his
music some justification for claims that he and Wagner put forward as
propagators of the music of the future.
Concerto No. 2 in A major was written in 1839 and revised during the Weimar
years, to be published in 1863 Liszt played it in public for the first time in
Weimar in 1857, two years after the first performance of the first concerto
there under Berlioz.
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BRAHMS / LISZT: Piano Concertos