Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon, Conductor
Yefim Bronfman, Piano
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11 *
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-97)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Twenty years separate the completion of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 (1854-58) and the initial sketches of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 (1878-81). Naturally, Brahms matured both as a man and musician in the intervening period. The piano concertos offer a musical parallel to his personal evolution. Brahms even christened his two musical progeny the “youth” and the “grown man.” Maturation, however, produced neither lethargy nor conservatism in Brahms. His Piano Concerto No. 2 exudes a vivacious charm in greater measure than the youthful No. 1.
Brahms began the Concerto No. 2 during the spring of 1878 and worked on it sporadically for the next three years. Finally, in 1881, the piece achieved its glorious four-movement form in the summer heat of Pressbaum. With tongue in cheek, Brahms announced to Elisabet von Herzogenberg his “ever so tiny piano concerto with an ever so tiny and dainty scherzo.” But, the musical manuscript told another story. Brahms created arguably the most monumental piano concerto of the 19th century. Dedicating the score to Eduard Marxsen (1806-87), he acknowledged the benevolent guidance of his teacher in Hamburg.
The professional collaboration between Brahms and conductor Hans von Bülow entered a new phase with the Piano Concerto No. 2. Bülow had recently changed aesthetic camps from the “futurists” (Liszt and Wagner) to the “traditionalist” (Brahms), whose works he now championed tirelessly. For the first time, Bülow offered the Meiningen Court Orchestra, which he served as conductor, for private trial performances of the Concerto No. 2. This arrangement extended to the third and fourth symphonies.
A chance encounter between Brahms and Franz Liszt came at the hands of Bülow, who once was married to Liszt’s daughter Cosima. The elder musician asked Brahms for a copy of the concerto, a request he gladly honored. Liszt responded with a tepid letter of thanks on February 2, 1882. “Frankly speaking, at first reading this work seemed to me a little gray in tone; I have, however, gradually come to understand it. It possesses the pregnant character of a distinguished work of art, in which thought and feeling move in noble harmony.” Virtuosity—demanded in abundance by Brahms’s concerto—is subordinate to the painstaking synthesis of piano and orchestra, perhaps accounting for the “grayness of tone” and the imperative “understanding” that troubled Liszt.
At the beginning of the Allegro non troppo, a single horn and the piano presage themes to come. A solo piano passage builds to the entrance of the massed orchestra with the first theme. Strings introduce a twisting, expressive contrasting idea. There is no formal cadenza in this movement. The composer’s “tiny and dainty scherzo,” the Allegro appassionato movement, presents a concise but unconventional sonata form. A slow (largamente) trio appears within the development. Brahms reportedly planned this haunting, minor-key material for his violin concerto, but scrapped the idea.
Concerto-within-a-concerto might best describe the Andante. Within the first and last sections, a solo cello emerges as the leading voice; the keyboard remains detached from this theme. Only in the central section does the piano command full attention. Like many of his sonata-rondo finales, Brahms builds a refrain theme from small, repeating motives. Winds present a mournful contrasting theme. The dotted refrain theme returns, and then there is a development. The two previously heard themes lead to a concluding statement of the refrain.
—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009
Wednesday, July 8, 2 p.m. — Bennett • Gordon Hall
Meet Yefim Bronfman after his performance for a signing outside Ravinia Gifts, located in front of the Dining Pavilion.
Signings are at the discretion of the artist and are subject to change. Purchase of recorded merchandise does not guarantee signature.