UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) German composer. From photograph taken in the the last year of his life. Halftone. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Brahms: sublime genius on a major scale

The German composer and pianist was a virtuoso talent


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The views expressed by composers about the productions of their colleagues are usually interesting, and often controversial. Benjamin Britten is a case in point: his opinions were nothing if not opinionated. He arbitrarily divided music lovers into those who revered Mozart and Schubert, and those who were devotees of Beethoven and Wagner, placing himself firmly in the first camp. 

Anyone who has heard Britten’s recording with the English Chamber Orchestra of the “Prague” symphony, or his playing alongside Peter Pears in Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise will agree that he had an especial affinity with these masters; but his implicit relegation of the German below the Austrian masters certainly throws down a gauntlet.

Britten was indeed possessed of strong and frequently quixotic likes and (especially) dislikes. Chief among these was his antipathy to Johannes Brahms, though as a teenager he had admired him. For some reason, this most widely-loved of the German romantics provoked Britten to the most intemperate statements. “I play through all Brahms every so often to see if he’s as bad as I thought — and usually find him worse.”

He called the noble first symphony “ugly and pretentious”; the late clarinet trio was “foul — I can scarcely bear to play it”. Most famous perhaps is his remark: “It’s not bad Brahms I mind, it’s good Brahms I can’t stand.” It is perhaps not difficult to see why Britten felt this way: however one defines the quintessence of his musical voice — so often coiled, nervous and oblique — it is the antithesis of Brahms’s idiom.

No one’s personal taste can ultimately be proved right or wrong, but if the consistent views of musicians and connoisseurs over the decades are anything to go by, these opinions are nonsense. They come moreover from a man who condemned the sublime second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata — memorably glorified in prose by Thomas Mann — as “grotesque”. We must sadly conclude they tell us more about Britten than about the music he anathematises.

Untroubled by these later controversies, Brahms conformed to a nineteenth-century pattern by producing a brace of piano concertos. He followed Chopin (youthful masterpieces of great finesse), Mendelssohn (wonderfully fresh pieces that are still insufficiently known) and Liszt — to the vulgarity and shallowness of whose concertos (some may think) Brahms’s two essays stand as a permanent reproach. Indeed, they are generally regarded as the greatest piano concertos written after Beethoven. 

Both are gigantic works of the utmost ambition and seriousness of purpose. Each is a staple of the piano repertoire and so enduringly loved and respected as to make Britten’s remarks seem merely trivial. They also represent the final masterpieces in this medium of the western European tradition; thereafter the baton passed eastwards. So it is natural that the discussion point arises among enthusiasts for the Brahms concertos as to which of the two is the more successful work. In his thought-provoking book Rough Ideas, pianist Stephen Hough poses the blunt question, “Brahms First or Second?”

The contrast between the works could scarcely be more extreme. Almost the only thing that they have in common, apart from their huge scale, is that both accord to the solo instrument a distinctive role. Conventionally (in a tradition started by Mozart), the orchestra and piano essentially alternated in taking centre stage, with the piano’s limelit moments often providing the occasion for technical display; thereafter, especially in Romantic concertos, the role of the piano became ever more prominent. 

Instead, there is in the Brahms works a symphonic integration between the protagonists. The difficulties in performance for the soloist remain extreme and in the case of the second concerto legendary — one distinguished pianist once privately confessed that he aimed in performance to play 70 per cent of the notes — but those notes are part of the architectural structure, rather than surface decoration. 

In the case of the first concerto, completed in 1858, this integration may reflect its origins. While it was originally conceived as a sonata for two pianos, it transformed in Brahms’s mind into a symphony. As Malcolm Macdowell observes, virtuoso piano-writing kept intruding into the fabric of the music during its gestation, and so there can be seen in retrospect to have been an inevitability about the form that it assumed. 

The work occupies a world of emotional intensity that has not escaped adolescent Sturm und Drang. The key of D minor would have been associated in Brahms’s mind with Beethoven’s ninth symphony, which opens with a similarly angular, arpeggiated subject. The occasional detonations and forbidding mood (especially in the first movement) are allied to rigorous, large-scale planning and Brahms’s usual motivic economy. Not many listeners immediately realise, for example, that the muscular tune that opens the rondo third movement, another of the composer’s many homages to Beethoven, is related to the chorale-like second subject which provides soothing contrast in the first.

However often one hears the concerto’s maestoso opening movement, one is at once caught up in its volcanic passion and palpable sense of catastrophe — which, despite moments of calm, barely lets up over its immense length (more than 22 minutes in the definitive Curzon/Szell recording). As Hough writes, it is a burst of pure, natural genius, an intense flame. 

As well as Beethoven’s, the spirit of Bach broods over the movement: the piano’s understated initial entry put Tovey in mind of an arioso in the Matthew Passion. And the whole concerto is suffused with the consciousness of Brahms’s mentor Schumann, who had attempted suicide in 1854, been confined to an institution and died two years later. 

Joachim tells us the first movement’s mood reflects Brahms’s on hearing the older composer had thrown himself into the Rhine. The second is an even more explicit homage to Schumann, to whom Brahms used to refer, touchingly if ungrammatically, as “Mynheer Domini”. (The main melody fits the liturgical sentence Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini.) The atmosphere is one of numbed and retrospective lyricism. And the final movement maintains the tone of seriousness and energy almost to the last.

How different is the landscape set before the listener by the second concerto, written over 20 years later. Never imagined as anything other than what it became, it is a work of contentment and maturity. The burnished, serene first movement, built largely around two rising and falling three-note cells heard in the evocative opening horn solo, runs its spacious course with limitless invention. 

Turbulence exists only to provide dramatic contrast; the emotional surface is essentially unruffled. Once more there is an allusion to Beethoven: the cadenza at the outset refers to the Emperor concerto. 

But the older composer never struck quite such a sustained tone of benevolent largesse, nor did he ever write a concerto in four movements. This massive work, which Brahms with heavy humour described as a “tiny, tiny concerto” is enlarged by an unprecedented “tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”, in fact a concise sonata-form second movement of passion and urgency. As with the first concerto, there is a deeply-felt, allusive slow movement, though here the connection is forwards to a song not yet composed, in which the mood is noticeably darker than its genial forebear.

No listener could regard the finale of the first concerto as less inspired than what went before. But in the case of the second, there are those who consider the gracious allegretto conclusion as something of a let-down. These commentators might have the glimmerings of a point, for there is with all composers after Beethoven (though none before) what might be called a last movement problem. 

Schubert himself is not always above this criticism: some of his greatest pieces (the piano sonatas in D and B flat, D850 and 960, for example) do not quite sustain the level of inspiration found in the first three movements. Brahms occasionally attracts the same observation, for example in the piano quartet in C minor Op 60. 

The comment is actually a back-handed compliment, for the lesser finales are all fine pieces, just not quite as fine as what went before. Yet the last movement of the second piano concerto, for all its playful insouciance, represents no diminution of inspiration. 

Such are the paradoxical mysteries of music

Stephen Hough is one of the few pianists who has played both these massive concertos in one evening; Daniel Barenboim used to pull off the same feat, as, extraordinarily, did the octogenarian Artur Rubinstein. Hough concluded the second Brahms piano concerto is the better work, but the first is the greater. Such are the paradoxical mysteries of music.

For his part, Benjamin Britten wrote just one piano concerto, a work of his youth (written just before and revised just after the War). It is worth looking out every so often. Generous-minded Brahms lovers may be surprised how good it is.

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