EXPLORING MUSIC: A Stunning Performance: Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2
The MHS Review 237 Vol. 3, No. 3 March 26, 1979
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by David M. Greene
I am beginning to have some kindly feelings toward Brahms, despite my lifelong conviction that he wrote wooly music. These feelings are perhaps not unrelated to this recording. I have just played through a recording of it, and in W.E. Henley's apparently immortal words, "I have not winced nor cried aloud.''
A surprised writer finds he's getting past his concerns about Brahms' wooly music, and finds a performance he calls "glorious".
I am beginning to have some kindly feelings toward Brahms, despite my lifelong conviction that he wrote wooly music. These feelings are perhaps not unrelated to MHS 4001. I have just played through a cassette dubbing of it, and in W.E. Henley's apparently immortal words, "I have not winced nor cried aloud.'' That, given the circumstances, is unprecedented. I once winced so much during a concert performance of the violin concerto (the cries I stifled with my necktie), that I was asked to leave the hall.
One thing that I have learned about Brahms that delights me is that he loved Italy (that dark Helen ever burning in my heart!). To be sure, from the time that Goethe led the way, it has been a sacred German duty to know das Land wo die Orangen bluhn, and, moreover, traveling from Vienna to Italy is no big deal (though the Viennese pretend they've never heard of the place if you look for guidebooks there). Still and all, I'm convinced that a man who loved Italy can't have been all bad. Brahms used to stay with the Duke of Meiningen at the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como. Robert Haven Schauffler tells how the composer came across a statue of St. Joachim in Cremona and remarked (playing on the name of his friend, the great violinist) that it was appropriate that Joachim should be so honored in the hometown of Antonio Stradivarius.
In the spring of 1878, Brahms, now fairly securely established in Vienna, made his first trip. A friend, a surgeon called Dr. Billroth, said, in effect, "Why don't you let me show you Italy?" and Brahms innocently yielded. In many ways he wished later that he hadn't. Billroth kept saying, "You really must see this!" and "You wouldn't want to bother with that!" and "There really isn't time for another drink, unless you want to miss the catacombs!" and ended up by driving Brahms up the wall. On his next visit, Brahms was safari-leader.
David's concerns about the "woolly" music of Brahms is not completely echoed across classical music (surprise!). However, his conversion to Brahms via the Second Piano Concerto is a bit surprising.
Brahms's first piano concerto is one of the evergreens of the piano repertoire. And it took Brahms 22 years to write a second concerto for the piano. Brahms described it as "a small work" to Clara Schumann, but it is, in fact, one of the longest piano concertos of the Romantic era.
HOW TO LISTEN: Alto, a British-based reissue label, has done the world a musical service by keeping the recording reviewed here available. You can listen below (added bonus - it also includes Tirimo's performance of the more famous Piano Concerto No. 1)
Given Brahms' position as one of the central pillars of classical music of the Romantic era (and in spite of concerns about his wooliness), all of the piano greats of the modern recording era have recorded both the First and Second concertos. So there's LOTS of comparing to do. You'll find the critics tend to prefer the combination of the pianists of the heroic, romantic reputation and the German orchestras and/or conductors, but we're going to mix it up a bit.
Maurizio Pollini with Karl Bohm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. That's a performance deserving of a Michelin star. (Bonus - the First is with Abbado and the Vienna.)
Sir Stephen Hough can always be counted on to deliver a thoughtful, probing performance that won't disappoint. He might not push the envelope in an emotional level, but he's a brainiac's fave. If you like his piano concertos, MHS has a performance of him performing the Brahms violin and piano sonatas that you can listen to by clicking here.
Sviatoslav Richter's performance, with Erich Leinsdorf is a true classic. And kudos to whoever decided in the RCA design department to go totally retro on the cover of this reissue.
American listeners of a certain age grew up speaking of this recording as a touchstone - the "Fleisher/Szell" recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms concerti.
Still, it had been an experience and he came home eager to work. In those years he summered at a place called Portschach on the Worthersee, a lake in Carinthia, where one can look south a few miles to the Jugoslavian and Italian Alps. It was a great place for composing. He turned out there, among other things, the second symphony and the violin concerto, before the autograph hunters drove him away two years later. At this time in his life, Brahms was doing a good deal of concertizing. In those years his waistline still permitted him to get close to the keyboard. (He was a progidious eater, and not a very dainty one. For supper, I read, he liked a big platter of cold cuts and a can of sardines, from which he first drank the oil). The Viennese critics, who had started out saying "Good player but no composer," were now saying "Decent composer, but rotten player". Still the offers were coming in, and that summer Brahms felt he ought to have a concerto to perform. To be sure, he had written one, but it had cost him so much trouble and had been written under such unhappy circumstances that he didn't like to think of it. But this came easy, and Brahms was obviously in an expansive mood when he wrote it. You know that right from the opening horncall, for the sound of the horn always seemed to bring out the best in him. There's none of that self-conscious "evoking the-spirit-of-Beethoven stuff" about this work. The slow movement has been termed "sentimental," but for me it attains that old-gold, summer-twilight mellowness that is Brahms at his best. Eduard Hanslick called the work a "symphony with piano obbligato," but the piano part in this recording more than claims equality--and indeed, to judge from my cassette, the recording is technically stunning.
Back a few decades, if you will recall, we had a pianist called Solomon. He played well enough not to have to bother with two names. So, I take it, with Tirimo. At any rate, if he has other names, those about him are sworn not to divulge them. Born in Greece, he was a child prodigy who is said to have conducted at La Scala at eleven. He won top prize in international competitions (e.g. Munich 1971 and Geneva 1972) and has performed with a list of first-rank orchestras and conductors longer than your arm. He is, I am astonished to learn, the first pianist to have played the cycle of all the Schubert sonatas in public, and has brought out an edition of them with the unfinished works completed by himself. Yoel Levi is a rising Israeli conductor, presently associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Piano Concerto No. 2
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yoel Levi, Director
Brahms' Second Piano Concerto is a work in four movements (not the customary three), and
many moods. These vary from the spaciousness (occasionally almost Wagnerian) character of
the first, to the intense, impassioned second (a scherzo), followed by a lyrical (almost tender}
slow movement, and a joyful (that's right, "joyful"}, finale. Glorious music, beautifully
played by the pianist Tirimo and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yoel Levi.