A Little Symphony

Jonathan Bellman

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?
Isn’t it?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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11 Responses to A Little Symphony

  1. TTU theory says:

    Funny you mention that piece. I just finished teaching a history of rock course over the summer and had been immersed in rock music for the past two months to the practical exclusion of classical music. Now back from vacation, I’m trying to get back in the classical “mood” (read: get Ace of Base out of my head) and the first recording I put on was the Gilels/Jochum recording (and I’m a double bassist, not a pianist by any stretch). I’m not familiar with the Zimerman, but I’ll look for it.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Should you find the recording, it will be worth the time organizing a solo, undisturbed hour in which to enjoy it. My advice would be not to do so behind the wheel!

  3. Tari says:

    As a pretty good violinist, I have managed to perform a fair chunk of solo Bach, but never started the Chaconne…until now, in my 40’s.
    These works carry lots of cultural trappings, and to feel confident about “conquering” them, I think we must be either unconcerned about our technical ability or have a lot of chutzpah.
    As I work on the Chaconne, I’m having really strong “dialogue” (for lack of a better concept) with those performers whose recordings I have respected over the years. Mostly, I’m having a much deeper relationship with a composer I have known intimately (I thought) for 33 years.
    I also have a much altered view of time (as in our time here on earth) as I work with this piece. If I don’t perform it until later…much later, or not at all even, that’s okay. I’m in it for the long haul, and I find that supremely comforting.
    Go ahead and start the thing! After all, 50 is the new 20.

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Oh, go for it, Jonathan; you’ll have so much fun wrestling with it. And you’ll KICK yourself someday if you don’t.

  5. David Cavlovic says:

    A recording I grew up with of the Brahms 2nd was John Lill’s Tchaikovsky Competition winning performance issued albeit briefly on DG. Here is one seriously underappreciated pianist. I was pleased to see his complete Beethoven Sonatas issued on the budget label Brilliant Classics. So worth the price and then some.

  6. Phil Ford says:

    One of my favorite moments from “Fight Club” (the film version) occurs when Tyler Durden endangers himself, the narrator/protagonist, and a couple of guys Tyler has inducted into his cult-like “Project Mayhem”:
    [Tyler steers the car into the opposite lane and accelerates]
    Narrator: What are you doing?
    Tyler Durden: Guys, what would you wish you’d done before you died?
    Steph: Paint a self-portrait.
    The Mechanic: Build a house.
    Tyler Durden: [to Narrator] And you?
    Narrator: I don’t know. Turn the wheel now, come on!
    Tyler Durden: You have to know the answer to this question! If you died right now, how would you feel about your life?
    Narrator: I don’t know, I wouldn’t feel anything good about my life, is that what you want to hear me say? Fine. Come on!
    Tyler Durden: Not good enough.
    If Jonathan was in that car, perhaps the answer would be “play Brahms op. 83.” I can’t think of a better answer, anyway.
    I love that piece. Actually, I worked on the first movement back when I could play piano and didn’t think it was that bad. (Then again, the really scary stuff is in the last movement.) Well, it’s not easy, but you feel like a badass when you play it, even if you’re hitting fistfuls of wrong notes. (Maybe *especially* if you are.)
    I love the Gilels recording. (Haven’t heard the Zimerman/Bernstein one.) Serkin is another of my favorites, though y’know, it’s not like he’s playing all the notes, either . . .

  7. eba says:

    You’re just the right age, Jonathan. As we used to say, “Live to surf; surf to live.”
    Or, in your case, “Live to play the piano; play the piano to live.”

  8. Deborah Fox says:

    When I was in college, there was a (now famous) music theory professor whose office was next to the room where I practiced daily. He was constantly practicing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto; very impressive. It was the talk of the music students, how he could play that piece. Years later we found out that it was the only piece he could play, it was the only piece he ever practiced, and he used it for every interview, etc. But if you have to live with one piece, this would be it!

  9. Jonathan says:

    Deborah: name of the prof, please? That’s really interesting; the piece becomes like a mantra or meditative discipline. Eric, Phil, Lisa, Tari: thank you for the right answer. Am very slowly, as time permits, messing with this and that passage. And that’s the point, as Tari notes: it’s not whether I’ll ever finish it, or perform it; it’s whether I get wrist-deep into it, amongst all the other stuff I’m doing. It’s like opening a difficult book to study, or assailing some other kind of monumental project–if you wait until you’re “ready,” you’ll never begin. I have a score; I have a piano. Time to begin slowly making the thing part of my DNA.

  10. Deborah Fox says:

    It was Stephen Albert; he taught theory at Smith for a few years in the mid-70s before he became known as a composer and died too young. Kind of a quirky high-energy guy, but the Brahms mitigated that in our eyes. I think it was sort of a meditation or focus for him. Enjoy.

  11. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Yay, Jonathan!
    I don’t have either Gilels/Jochum or Zimmerman/Bernstein; will check them out. I am very fond of Kovacevich/Davis (it’s technically and sonically better than the later recording with Sawallisch) and the ancient, error-filled Schnabel.

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