Johannes Brahms

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83

    Description by Roger Dettmer

    Portly, grey-bearded, and a celebrity, on the eve of his 45th birthday, Johannes Brahms began sketching themes for the Second Piano Concerto following the first of eight trips to Italy. He put these aside, however, to compose the D major Violin Concerto. Still in a symphonic mode after his Second Symphony, he added a scherzo to the B flat Piano Concerto's otherwise traditional three-movement form. Brahms finished composing it on July 7, 1881.

    Before the Budapest premiere on November 9, however, he tried the music at Meiningen with Hans von Bülow's orchestra, during closed rehearsals of other repertory. He returned there after Budapest for a public performance on November 27, conducted by Bülow, who talked up the work to his former father-in-law, Franz Liszt. Liszt requested a score, and later on wrote to Brahms, "At first reading this work seemed to me a little gray in tone; I have, however, come gradually to understand it. It possesses the pregnant character of a distinguished work of art, in which thought and feeling move in noble harmony." Praise indeed from an acknowledged old master, whose 1853 invitation to join his "New German Music Verein" Brahms had cursorily declined.

    Brahms incorporated several quite daring (for him) changes in procedure. He jettisoned the usual orchestral exposition in the opening movement; after the solo horn plays a wistfully expansive first theme with piano arpeggios, extended by the strings, the soloist unleashes a virtuosic cadenza that propels us into the exposition. Additional themes pour forth as if from a cornucopia, always paced by the piano, leading to a tempestuous development section that never loses sight of the opening horn theme. Its formal restatement signals a mostly benign reprise. There's a brilliant close, though, which poses a serious structural problem for soloist and conductor: how do you keep the ensuing scherzo from sounding anticlimactic, or worse yet, superfluous?

    Without appearing to understate or rein-in the opening Allegro non troppo movement, it dare not be played to the hilt. The entire work's structural fulcrum has to be the end of the scherzo, an Allegro appassionato in D minor with a soft-grained second theme; otherwise, the remaining two movements risk outstaying their welcome. Helpfully, the scherzo boasts a brilliant D major trio section, and a tempestuous close. But it must sound harrowing in order for the ensuing Andante to work its calming charm.

    The solo cello begins and ends the third movement with a poignant B flat melody that Brahms recalled five years later in his song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer. The middle portion, however, grows expressively high-strung until the clarinets restore calm with a piano-accompanied duet of russet beauty.

    Brahms marked his sonata-rondo finale Allegretto grazioso, although it accelerates later on as the solo writing becomes more and more brilliant, but this never becomes threateningly powerful. Some have claimed to hear "gypsies" in the string writing; but even if so, it would be what Hungarians call Verbunkos, subliminally remembered from Brahms' teenage tours with the violinist Reményi, who first introduced him to Liszt.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Allegro non troppo
    2. Allegro appassionato
    3. Andante
    4. Allegretto grazioso

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Sony Classical 88875119792
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4793985
    2016 Warner Classics 0190295975104
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 002894795516
    2016 RCA Red Seal 88875177312
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon B002436502
    2016 Warner Classics 557828
    2015 Arbiter ARB 163
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon 4794899
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon 4821358
    2015 Decca 002369302
    2015 Sony Classical 88843014702
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon 4792384
    2014 Erato 2564632295
    2014 Capriccio Records C 5210
    2014 Deutsche Grammophon
    2014 Praga DSD 350103
    2014 Warner Classics 2564633625
    2014 RCA Red Seal 88843003502
    2014 RCA Red Seal 88843006072
    2014 Urania / Urania Records WS 121270
    2013 Muso MU 005
    2013 Naxos 8570143
    2013 Audiophile Classics 101545
    2013 Hyperion CDA 67961
    2013 Deutsche Grammophon
    2013 ABC Classics PLU 351694
    2013 Deutsche Grammophon B001904602
    2013 Entertainment Group 13206
    2013 Dutton Digital / Dutton Laboratories CDBP 9817
    2013 Doremi Records DHR 8000
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    2013 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PHH 13033
    2013 Warner Classics 5099940940
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    2013 Decca 4785093
    2012 Antes Edition / Zebralution
    2012 Archipel ARPCD 0542
    2012 Archipel 0460
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    2012 Naxos 8501056
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    1996 Deutsche Grammophon 447446
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    1995 Intercord Klassische Diskothek 885924
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    RFCM Symphony Orchestra
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