Brahms’ unfulfilled love – a detached look back

Brahms piano 2-2
Desire – temptation. © Charles Thibo

Johannes Brahms’ music has made it into more than one novel of worldwide fame. The obvious one is “Aimez-vous Brahms?” (English title: Goodbye Again) published by the French author Françoise Sagan in 1959. In 1987,  the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami highlights in his novel “Norwegian Wood” both Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83. Sagan and Murakami wrote love stories, very different in style, set in a different social context but with a common subject: sexual desire, moral conventions and unfulfilled love, topics linked to Brahms, his biography and his music.

Grimaud: A tender meditation

Brahms’ second piano concerto “is like a vast, elaborate memoir – the closest equivalent I could think of is [the French writer Marcel] Proust”, says the pianist Hélène Grimaud, who recorded the piece with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Andris Nelson. “The Second Concerto is constructed in great arches, not impetuous episodes like the First; it is expressed in tender, mellifluous meditation rather than as outspoken intentions. There is something detached about the Second Concerto; its narrative is one of introspection, its yearnings are like echoes tinged with nostalgia, buried deep within a mountainous structure.”

Grimaud emphasizes Brahms’ “utter, heartbreaking honesty combined with that sense of analyzed experience that gives his music such an emotional power, without ever drifting into sentimentality.” The balance between emotion and reflection make it a fascinating piece, one that I can hear times and again. The piano explores so many shades of human emotions ranging from deep sadness to exuberant joy, from solemn earnestness to playful lightness, from darkness to light and back – without ever drifting into kitsch.

“A truly poetic effect”

Brahms wrote Op. 83 between 1878 and 1881. He sketched the first ideas probably during a journey to Italy – his first – and his friend Theodor Billroth reacted enthusiastic when he saw the score: “There it finally is, the second piano concerto that we have been waiting for. What a wonderful piece, […] I expect the adagio to have a truly poetic effect through its instrumentation – a moonlit night in Taormina!” Billroth was an amateur musician and accompanied Brahms’ on his second trip to Italy.

The British musicologist Robert Pascall considers the piano concerto as a sister of Brahms’ violin concerto and points out what they have in common: a lyrical main theme for the orchestra and the soloist by way of introduction followed by a contrasting solo part, the emphasis on a minor tonality in the first movement, the four-movement-structure, a slow movement with three sections where two are  led by a solo cello and one by the piano and a masterful finale where Brahms makes the orchestra walk on a tightrope: symphonic reasoning to the left, dance-like rhythms and tempi* to the right.

If only Robert Schumann would have lived to hear this piano concerto! He would have been proud of his former protégé.

Charles Thibo

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