Is there anything more haunting or evocative than the horn call at the start of Brahms’ second piano concerto?
Claudio Abbado, who has been given Gramophone Magazine’s recording of the year award for Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2013, was conductor of the wonderful Berlin Philharmonic for 13 years. No better example of his superlative musicianship exists than his collaboration with Alfred Brendel on Brahms’ second piano concerto, recorded with that orchestra in 1991.
Brahms completed his second piano concerto in 1881, a period that saw the composition of his second symphony, violin concerto, and the “Academic Festival” overture, all of which reflect the more genial side of his character. While they are often described as “sunny” and “joyful”, they inevitably embody the wistfulness more evident in his later works. As always, structure is everything and there is nothing more perfect, more pregnant with possibility, than the opening four bars played by the horn, one of Brahms’ most cherished orchestral instruments.
The concerto has four movements, unlike every piano concerto that preceded it. Brahms introduced a Scherzo after the first movement. Asked why, Brahms replied, “Well, you see, the first movement is so simple.” Brahms was joking, of course. The first movement is monumental, unfolding from the lyrical horn motif until it becomes a magnificent blossom. The Scherzo is a stormy interlude (“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”) setting the scene for the inward-looking Andante that follows, with its tender dialogue between solo cello and piano. The genius of Brahms is evident throughout the concerto, not least in the finale (Allegretto grazioso), which dances ever more delightfully, requiring delicate virtuosity on the part of the soloist.
Brahms gave the first performance of the concerto, but it is unlikely he did it justice. The critic Eduard Hanslick described Brahms’ playing of his own works as neglecting much that a player should rightly do for a composer: “His playing resembles the austere Cordelia, who concealed her finest feelings rather than betray them to the people.”
Today’s virtuosi have no such qualms. There are many distinguished recordings and everyone has their favourite: Claudio Arrau, Clifford Curzon, Emil Gilels, Julius Katchen, Rudolf Serkin, and more recently Stephen Kovacevich, Maurizio Pollini and Nelson Freire. But it is the partnership between Alfred Brendel and Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic that stands head and shoulders above them for its sheer beauty, musical integrity, and zest for life.
Brendel once said, “If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer telling the piece what it should be like, or the composer what he ought to have composed.” Abbado had the same belief, always striving after what lay behind and beyond the notes rather than imposing an “interpretation”.
Seek out this recording, in which the interplay between orchestra and soloist, the colouring and phrasing, are breathtaking. Abbado and Brendel are of one mind and the result – as Keats wrote – is a thing of beauty that will “never pass into nothingness”.