I have had a fixation about Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto since I was a child; my parents bought me an LP of composer biographies (two per side), and one was Brahms. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83 was one of the featured works, and something about that solo horn solo and the later full-orchestra realization of it—that elaboration being the salient point made by the narrator, in a wondering tone guaranteed to hook a child for life—got into my brain tissue. Becoming familiar with the whole massive work later on only deepened my obsession with it. Brahms himself called it “a little symphony with piano obbligato,” and it’s hard to know whether he (somehow) was referring to the way he conceived the work or simply being ironic: the piece is unquestionably symphonic in scope, and is one of the most challenging concertos in the repertoire. There is plenty of a soloistic nature in the piece, but somehow Brahms avoids the piano-for-piano’s-sake feeling found in so many other concertos. The piano and orchestra are interdependent in a way that brings Mozart and Beethoven to mind: concertare, working together, rather than concitare, working against each other. Cadenza passages that have the most gloriously extended harmonic pedals always return to earth in orchestral arms, sharing the joint venture rather than the piano making the orchestra wait, so to speak. This concerto is on my “ultimates” list, certainly, with the likes of the Bach Chaconne for Violin, the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, Chopin’s Ballades (except maybe the Third), the motet Ave Regina Caelorum (III) by Guillaume Du Fay, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, etc.
For a long time, my favorite recording of Brahms #2 was Emil Gilels with Eugen Jochum and the Vienna Philharmonic. Then, perhaps six or seven years ago, I was in the car with my young (8 or 9?) son and heard a recording that was unfamiliar to me. The second movement—my favorite movement, if I had to choose—was so painfully beautiful, so to-the-heart expressive of what the piece always seemed to me to be saying…well, I had to pull over. I wasn’t safe to drive. After I pulled myself together (Ben, thankfully, didn’t really notice that anything was amiss), I listened for the identities of the musicians. Krystian Zimerman, glory be upon his name, was the pianist, and Leonard Bernstein was conducting the VPO.
Things got busy. I never got around to picking it up, and thought about other things. This past week, though, I encountered it again, since our library has the Sony/DG Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century CD series and this recording is on the Zimerman issue. So, I brought it home. And it’s still my favorite; Zimerman sounds as if he isn’t breaking a sweat, and is so superbly in control—without the slightest hint of rushing or dragging—of the myriad tensions and releases of Brahms’s harmonic palette that it makes my soul ache to listen to it. Again and again and again.
I do own the score to this thing, as it happens. I’ve never learned it; a gazillion incredibly difficult notes. I’ve played the Beethoven “Emperor” before (and will again, as I mentioned before) among other things, but I’ve never played a concerto like Brahms #2, or Rachmaninov #3, or one of those. Never got around to it. And yet, my score sits and looks at me. Not reproachfully, exactly, but at the very least penetratingly. When I open the score up, there it is. There’s Brahms. THE piece.
Yeah, I know. Rabbi Hillel, in the Talmud: “If not now, when?” Sometime I wish the Hillel in my head would have the decorum to bide silent. I just turned 51, for heaven’s sake; it’s unreasonable to start such a piece at my advanced age. Isn’t it?