Program note: Trifonov Plays Brahms

Thursday, August 4, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Brahms: Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for Piano, Op. 15

Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for Piano, Op. 15

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Composed: 1854-1858
Length: c. 42 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano

I knew that someday soon someone would suddenly appear as the greatest expression of our time in an ideal manner, one who would develop mastery not by gradual unfolding, but suddenly, like Minerva springing from Jupiter’s head in full armor. And he has come, this chosen youth, at whose cradle Graces and Heroes kept their vigil. His name is Johannes Brahms.

–Robert Schumann, October 28, 1853

When Schumann wrote these prescient words in his groundbreaking music journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Brahms was a 21-year-old unknown, with no published works and little exposure. However, he had the good fortune to meet Robert and Clara Schumann in September 1853. The bond between them was immediate, and a close look at some of Brahms’s manuscripts was all Schumann needed to proclaim him the next big thing in German music. With Schumann’s article, Brahms’s reputation soared nearly overnight.

Just weeks after the article appeared, Brahms successfully negotiated to have his first six works published, pieces which he affectionately referred to as “Schumann’s foster children.”

Infinitely grateful to Schumann for the boost, Brahms felt enormous pressure to live up to the master’s words. In the early months of 1854, Brahms had sketched out a sonata for two pianos in D minor, and in May, he played it through with Clara Schumann, with whom he was forging a close friendship that would last until her death in 1896. Although successful, the work left Brahms unsatisfied, agreeing with his friend Julius Grimm who declared that the work deserved “a more dignified form.” Brahms’s decision to recast the work as a first symphony was certainly in part influenced by Schumann’s high expectations—if he were to become the next great German composer, he would have to establish himself as a master of the symphonic form. He struggled mightily with the rewrite, however, spinning his wheels for months.

In February 1855, a new idea came to him in a dream that he described to Clara: he was playing a piano concerto based on his “hapless symphony…. [consisting of] the first movement and scherzo with a finale, terribly difficult and grand.” And so, Brahms began to rework the piece yet again, ultimately composing completely new second and third movements for what became his first piano concerto. By the time the work premiered in 1859, his mentor Robert Schumann had been dead for over two years. The music world would have to wait another 18 years before Brahms found the strength and inspiration to complete his first symphony.

What to listen for

  • First movement: relish the drama of the long orchestral opening—a feeling of simultaneous majesty and menace, with unsettling string trills and timpani rolls. The balance comes when the piano is granted center stage in its unaccompanied introduction of the expansively expressive second theme.
  • Second movement: on the manuscript for the movement, Brahms inscribed the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,” (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”) which have been interpreted as a homage to Schumann, whom Brahms often addressed in letters as “Mynheer Domine.” The hymnlike elegance of the bassoon and muted strings sets the mood.
  • Third movement: the fiercely rhythmic rondo theme is charged from the start. Notice how Brahms creates urgency with the melodic figure that boldly ascends to a turn motive that insistently repeats twice. The rising gesture will later become the basis for a highly unusual fugue in the middle of the movement.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi