Loss of Memory - Brahms

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

There are many things about getting older that aren't much fun and one tries to laugh at them but actually forgetting where you put your parking ticket in a car park at Heathrow isn't one of them.  It is also rather embarrassing when you forget a close friend's name at a party after a glass or two.  Nowadays I find it takes me ages to learn something new at the piano, I can sit down and have a good crack at a new piece and when I come to it the next day, it is almost as if I have never seen it before.  I have to say that the plumber was a bit surprised when I asked him 3 times in the space of 5 minutes what he wanted in his coffee!!

Right now I am listening to one of Brahms' piano concertos and they definitely get into your soul.   He wrote two of them and whilst they are gigantium concertos, they are without doubt two of the greatest works ever written for piano.  There is so much to say about them but in order not to bore you I will pick out the salient points.  Brahms was a pianist himself and had a complete understanding for the instrument, as such they are incredibly rich in sound and texture which is often created by his use of harmony, texture of the chords and how he balances all the different instruments and themes.  Playing these concertos is not for the feint hearted, you need to have wide hands, nimble fingers, strength, stamina and be reasonably fit.  This is because they are massive works emotionally and physically, Piano concerto No 2 is very long - some 50 minutes. 

Helene Grimaud ©Mat Henek/DG

Helene Grimaud
©Mat Henek/DG

Piano Concerto No 1 in d minor was written when the composer was in his 20s and is a masterpiece.  The first movement is full of drama opening with the orchestra in full force but calm sets in and the piano enters with a moving theme, the entire movement continues in this vein contrasting drama with calm. Listen to the first movement on YouTube.  The second movement is much quieter throughout and an almost religious atmosphere predominates running through the whole movement.  The third is yet another contrast and is almost gypsy like with it's themes and rhythms.

Piano Concerto No 2 in Bb major was written much later in his life, it is a very moving work full of emotion.  Most unusually it is in four movements, the first of which opens with a haunting horn call after which the piano responds with graceful arpeggios.  Brahms called the second movement a 'tiny tiny little scherzo', infact it is the most dramatic of all the movements.  The third movement is beautiful and tender with a very famous theme introduced by the cello and then expanded by the violins and piano.  The fourth movement is graceful but soon becomes a spirited work for the soloist. Listen to the third movement Andante on Youtube. 

An interesting aside is that Brahms himself played the first piano concerto at the premiere, it was a complete disaster and the work was dismissed.  Nowadays it is a very different story in that these two works are two of the most popular piano concertos played all over the world.

Because of the drama in these works I think they need to be recorded live, the recording I recommend is by the French Canadian pianist Helene Grimaud who is described as one of the world's most captivating pianists.  Very few female pianists play these concertos.

Download Brahms Piano concertos from iTunes    

Posted on November 5, 2016 .