Boris Giltburg on Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2

Pianist Boris Giltburg explores Brahms's masterpiece in the first of a series of guest blogs for BBC Music Magazine

Boris Giltburg on Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2

There’s a magical moment in the first movement of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, just before the reprise, when the music stands still, the orchestra holds an A major chord in triple piano, and high above it, the piano plays a series of gently shimmering figurations. At first it’s all static, but then the piano begins to climb higher and higher, accompanied by a series of subtle shifts in the harmony; there’s a growing sense of expectation within you, a kind of a heart-aching sweet yearning — and then, when you feel you can’t take it anymore, the golden sound of the horn enters warmly with the opening theme. It’s homecoming, wonderful and reassuring, and after the masterful buildup the effect is such that I can’t help but grin every time I play this place.

Almost as magical is the very opening: an unaccompanied horn call fills the air, noble and majestic, and the piano answers with a leisurely arpeggio, spanning two-thirds of the keyboard, and finishing with an echo of the call. With just two musical gestures, Brahms creates a huge soundspace – you could fit mountains and meadows and a sunrise in it. The harmonic language couldn’t be simpler: tonic for the first call, dominant for the second and nothing else. These are the first two chords one would learn as a child. Yet far from betraying a lack of imagination, in Brahms’ hands the unadorned harmonies become a great asset — they seem to me to ring with the certainty of some basic, yet very deep truths.

Simple or simplistic are the last words one could apply to the concerto. It’s the work of a mature master, rich and complete, written in 1881, when Brahms’ fame as a composer was firmly established in Europe, and more than 20 years after the First Piano Concerto. 'A second one will sound very different,' Brahms wrote to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, after the very unsuccessful premiere of the First Concerto — and so it does. The First Concerto seems to me to have been conceived as a single dramatic unit, its second movement a moment of spiritual repose, but with the finale picking up at the point where the first movement left, with just as much fire and determination. The effect is of a single, taut line drawn from the thunderous opening D note and until the final D major coda, where the tension finally finds release.

The Second Concerto in comparison feels expansive and unhurried, covering a large amount of ground, both in terms of the sheer quantity of musical material but also of the wide spectrum of emotions and moods it contains. Sviatoslav Richter went quite far and described with conviction the concerto as a detailed chronicle of Apollo’s life, but even without being so precise, the sense of a slice of somebody’s life unfolding before us is very strong. Sections and themes follow each other in an almost kaleidoscopic manner, yet combine to form one captivating, engaging whole.

The second movement (self-deprecatingly described by Brahms as a “tiny wisp of a Scherzo”), follows directly on the bright, uplifting ending of the first; it was my favourite part as a kid, and I have to admit, remains so to this day. The abandon with which you can throw yourself at the music, the dark passion which suffuses it, the visceral feeling of tension between the orchestra and yourself, the artless beauty of the second theme, the proud D major of the trio, and finally the coda in which one can fully let go — it’s tremendously rewarding. If not for one fear-inducing, finger-breaking passage in the trio, it would also be a technically easier movement than either the first one or the finale.

What follows is an utter contrast: the warm tenderness of the cello solo in the opening of the third movement. When first studying this concerto I couldn’t understand why in every recording I listened to the pianist would enter in a much slower tempo after that long orchestral opening. The reason became self-evident at the very first rehearsal: there is so much love and poetry in that music, there’s such gentleness, that when the orchestra finally passes the baton to you, the feeling is that you’ve been handed something precious and fragile and all you want to do is protect it with utmost care.

The serene mood is interrupted by some turbulence in the middle section, but then restored by a beautiful static passage in the very distant key of F-sharp major – a terzetto for piano and two clarinets, almost like a ballet in very slow motion. This leads to a full repeat of the opening tutti, the cello solo joined by the piano this time; early on in that section there’s another magical moment in which Brahms, with help of an inspired modulation, leads us back to the home key. Finally, after a short coda, the glow of a B-flat major arpeggio brings the movement to a close.

The finale is charm and elegance embodied, with a dose of humour, a touch of gypsy (or Hungarian) music in its second subject, and a brilliant virtuoso coda. At times I might wish for a movement with more gravitas, to balance the first and second movements, yet any such thoughts evaporate as soon as you start playing, with the music winning you over completely. In the end, the overriding feeling I’m left with is one of great fulfillment — you find everything in the concerto, with depth and lightness, happiness and pain, struggle and contentedness all equally present. If it does indeed describe a life, or a slice of it, then performing it equates to having lived this full and very interesting life — with the added bonus of having the opportunity to relive it again and again in each performance.


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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