Hélène Grimaud performs Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2

Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2 (Hélène Grimaud)

Accompanied by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, French classical pianist Hélène Grimaud performs Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83. Conductor: David Zinman. Recorded at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on 16th January 2013.

There is a 22 year gap between Brahms’ second and first piano concerto. He began work on the piece in 1878 and completed it in 1881 while in Pressbaum near Vienna. It is dedicated to his teacher, Eduard Marxsen (23 July 1806 – 18 November 1887, the German pianist, composer and teacher). The premiere of the concerto was given in Budapest on November 9, 1881, with Brahms as soloist, and was an immediate success.

The piece is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (B-flat), 2 bassoons, 4 horns (initially 2 in B-flat bass, 2 in F), 2 trumpets (B-flat), timpani (B-flat and F), and strings. (The trumpets and timpani are used only in the first two movements, which is unusual.)

The piece is in four movements, rather than the three typical of concertos in the Classical and Romantic periods. With the starting times in the video:

  1. 00:32 Allegro non troppo (B-flat major): The first movement is in the concerto variant of sonata form. The main theme is introduced with a horn solo, with the piano interceding. The woodwind instruments proceed to introduce a small motif (borrowed, perhaps unconsciously, from the opening of the first movement of his Serenade No. 2) before an unusually placed cadenza appears. The full orchestra repeats the theme and introduces more motifs in the orchestral exposition. The piano and orchestra work together to develop these themes in the piano exposition before the key changes to F minor (from F major, the dominant) and the piano plays a powerful and difficult section before the next orchestral tutti appears. The development, like many such sections in the Classical period, works its way from the dominant key back to the tonic while heavily developing themes. At the beginning of the recapitulation, the theme is replayed before a differing transition is heard, returning to the music heard in the piano exposition (this time in B-flat major / B-flat minor). A coda appears after the minor key section, finishing off this movement. One motif repeated in the development has been noted by musicologists as bearing similarity to Battle Hymn of the Republic and Say, Brothers, but it is unlikely Brahms knew of either hymn.
  2. 19:16 Allegro appassionato (D minor): This scherzo is in the key of D minor and is in ternary form. Contrary to Brahms’ “tiny wisp of a scherzo” remark, it is a tumultuous movement. The piano and orchestra introduce the theme and develop it before a quiet section intervenes. Soon afterwards the piano and orchestra launch into a stormy development of the theme before coming to the central episode (in D major). The central episode is brisk and begins with the full orchestra before yet another quiet section intervenes; then the piano is integrated into the orchestral effect to repeat the theme of the central episode. The beginning section returns but is highly varied.
  3. 28:32 Andante (B-flat major): he slow movement is in the tonic key of B-flat major and is unusual in utilizing an extensive cello solo within a piano concerto (the source of this idea may be Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which features a slow movement scored only for cello and piano). Brahms subsequently rewrote the cello’s theme and changed it into a song, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer (“My Slumber Grows Ever More Peaceful”) with lyrics by Hermann Van Lingg. (Op. 105, No. 2). Within the concerto, the cello plays the theme for the first three minutes, before the piano comes in. However, the gentler melodic piece that the piano plays soon gives way to a stormy theme in B-flat minor. When the storm subsides, still in the minor key, the piano plays a transitional motif that leads to the key of G-flat major, before the cello comes in to reprise, in the wrong key, and knowing that it has to get back to B-flat major, the piano and the orchestra make a transition to finish off the theme in its original home key of B-flat major. After the piano plays the transitional motifs, the piano quickly reprises the middle section in a major key before the final coda is established.
  4. 40:11 Allegretto grazioso (B-flat major): The last movement consists of five clearly distinguishable sections, which introduce and develop five different themes.
    1. The first section (bars 1 to 64) presents themes 1 and 2. The first theme (also the “main theme”) (1-8) is first played by the piano and then repeated by the orchestra. The second theme (16-20) is likewise presented by the piano and repeated – and expanded – by the orchestra. Finally, a kind of development of the first theme leads on to the next section.
    2. The second section (65-164) contains the next three themes. Theme 3 (65-73) is very different from the previous ones, due largely to its minor setting and its distinctive, Hungarian rhythm. Theme 4 (81-88) is still in a minor and theme 5 (97-104) is in F major. These three themes are each repeated back and forth several times, which gives the section the character of a development.
    3. The third section (165-308) can be seen as a reprise of the first; it is built on the first two themes, but a striking new element is given in 201-205 and repeated in 238-241.
    4. The fourth section (309-376) reprises themes 3, 5 and 4, in that order.
    5. The final section, the coda, is built on the main theme, but even here (398) Brahms presents a new element, restating the main theme in triple rhythm (a device he used earlier to end his violin concerto) over a little march, first played by the piano, then answered by the orchestra, which trades themes with the soloist before the final chords.

NHK Symphony Orchestra

The NHK Symphony Orchestra is a Japanese orchestra based in Tokyo. The orchestra gives concerts in several venues, including the NHK Hall, Suntory Hall, and the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall.

The orchestra began as the New Symphony Orchestra on October 5, 1926 and was the country’s first professional symphony orchestra. Later, it changed its name to the Japan Symphony Orchestra. In 1951, after receiving financial support from NHK, the orchestra took its current name.

The most recent music director of the orchestra was Vladimir Ashkenazy, from 2004 to 2007. Ashkenazy now has the title of conductor laureate. Charles Dutoit, the orchestra’s music director from 1998 to 2003, is now its music director emeritus. Wolfgang Sawallisch, honorary conductor from 1967 to 1994, held the title of honorary conductor laureate until his death. The orchestra’s current permanent conductors are Yuzo Toyama, since 1979, and Tadaaki Otaka, since 2010. Herbert Blomstedt holds the title of honorary conductor, since 1986. André Previn has the title of principal guest conductor, and is scheduled to relinquish that post in August 2012. In June 2012, the orchestra named Paavo Järvi as its next chief conductor, as of the 2015-2016 season, with an initial contract of 3 years.

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