Brahms’ love song: The piano concerto in D minor

When I was younger (note the circumlocution) a friend and I decided we would collect all the recordings of Brahms’ first piano concerto. The difficulty of this enterprise soon became apparent – even today, there are more than 100 recordings available.

Brahms(1859)To begin with, Brahms’ first piano concerto was not popular. Respectfully received at its first performance in Hannover in 1859, a repeat performance in Leipzig a few days later was a disaster. “You probably already know that it was a complete failure,” wrote Brahms (photo right) to Clara Schumann, the pianist wife of Robert Schumann, who had said that Brahms was “destined to give ideal expression to our times in the loftiest and most ideal manner imaginable.” Apparently there was total silence in the rehearsals, catcalls at the performance and only perfunctory applause afterwards.

The music critic of the Leipzig Signale für die musikalische Welt biliously complained: “All this retching and wrenching, this lugging and tugging, this stitching together and ripping apart of phrases and snippets: all this had to be endured for more than three quarters of an hour.” Not the best review Brahms could have hoped for.

Brahms’ first piano concerto took six years to complete. It had already been sketched as a symphony when, in March 1854, Brahms was so overcome by hearing Beethoven’s ninth symphony for the first time that he recast the composition as a sonata for two pianos. Recovering his nerve, Brahms revised the entire concept and composed the concerto in the context of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and subsequent confinement to an insane asylum. The passionate opening of the concerto’s first movement may reflect Brahms’ state of mind at the time, but its exquisite second theme is transcendent and full of hope.

Clara-SchumannBrahms confessed that the serenely tranquil second movement was “a lovely portrait” in music of Clara Schumann (photo left), with whom he was in love. The motto prefixed to it in the manuscript reads “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”. Jocularly Brahms used to call Robert Schumann “Mynheer Domini” and since Clara bore his surname, it could refer to her. This may be fanciful, since the music has a religious mood that suggests a panacea for Schumann’s insanity. The musicologist Donald Tovey thought the piano’s first entry in this movement “worthy of Bach’s ariosos in the Matthew Passion.”

The third movement – a Rondo – is in the nature of a Hungarian folk dance contrasted with a song-like second theme. It romps along before a brilliant “Cadenza quasi Fantasia” of an improvisatory nature provides a link to a slow-burning fuse of a finale in the brilliant key of D major.

In “A Pianist’s A-V” (The New York Review of Books, 11 July 2013), the eminent pianist Alfred Brendel wrote:

“With all my admiration for the later variations, rhapsodies, intermezzi, and piano quartets, and a respectful bow toward the huge symphonic-chamber hybrid of the B-Flat Concerto, the purest Brahms remains for me the one between the first Piano Trio and the first String Sextet. To it, and particularly to the D Minor Concerto, goes my love.”

The following are recordings to look out for: Claudio Arrau, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Clifford Curzon, Emil Gilels, Stephen Kovacevich, Maurizio Pollini, and Solomon.

But this is a concerto in which the orchestra plays a defining role and, in this respect, undoubtedly the finest and most thrilling recordings of recent years, whose musical and emotional integrity are second to none, are Krystian Zimerman with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and Nelson Freire with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

As an 1846 Punch cartoon has it, “You pays your money, and you takes your choice.’’

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