Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat Major, Op 83 – Krystian Zimerman, piano with sheet music.
0:00 – Allegro non troppo
18:45 – Allegro appassionato
28:14 – Andante
42:40 – Allegretto grazioso
Performed with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Length: c. 50 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (1st = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 10, 1927, with soloist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The B-flat Concerto (1881) dates from the start of Brahms’ ripest maturity, the period when his fame had reached a peak throughout Europe and his physical image as we know it best was fixed: bearded and corpulent. It was also the time when one of his more tiresome quirks began to mark his correspondence: his cutesy references to his scores, the larger they got, as “miniatures.” Thus, Brahms described the sketches for Op. 83 to his friend and cultural mentor, the Viennese surgeon Dr. Theodor Billroth, as “some little piano pieces.” He went further with his friend and confidante Elisabeth von Herzogenberg:
“It is a tiny, tiny little concerto [Konzerterl] with a tiny, tiny little scherzo [Scherzerl].” This for what may well have been the largest piano concerto written to that time in terms of its complexity (of which the listener is never made aware), thematic variety, and sheer length.
The Concerto in B-flat, in four movements rather than the usual three, opens with a marvelous, mood-setting horn call that seems to gather all the other instruments, with the piano responding to its graceful melody with its own, equally graceful arpeggios before embarking on a thorny cadenza that announces the virtuoso nature of the movement in no uncertain terms. But it is a virtuosity neither omnipresent nor strained. Whenever one thinks the drama is on the verge of getting out of hand, the composer reintroduces a placating element, the opening horn theme, played either by that instrument or by different sections of the orchestra.
Although Brahms labeled the second movement a scherzo (or “tiny, tiny little scherzo”) – hardly a form commonly found in a concerto – it is in fact the most dramatic and tempestuous of the four movements, at the outset a crashing, battering workout for the piano, followed and contrasted by a yearning, mellow theme for the violins and a noble trio section, prior to the repetition of the opening histrionics.
The exquisitely songful, nocturnal slow movement is based entirely on the solo cello’s eight-measure phrase, which is subsequently passed to the violins and then expanded by the piano – a melody to which Brahms would later return for one of his most haunting songs, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (Ever gentler grows my slumber).
The impression of the rondo finale is, as previously suggested, one of gracious relaxation; but it is hardly of a single piece or mood, to wit the increasing brilliance – building to a pair of aggressive climaxes – of the solo, before returning to the skipping opening theme, and the crunching final orchestral crescendo, by which time the mood has changed from the gracious to the thunderous, in which vein the concerto ends.
Krystian Zimerman, pianist
Krystian Zimerman provides perhaps what is the most spectacular example of success experienced by a winner of the Chopin Competition. Victory in a significant competition does not always guarantee a blooming professional career. In fact, as the number of competitions constantly expands, instances of this are becoming increasingly rare. Amongst winners of the first prize at the Chopin Competition, solely the career of Martha Argerich matched Krystian Zimerman’s in terms of rank, though it should be said that they developed differently, probably due to the diverse characters of these two great artists.
To a great degree, Martha Argerich acts spontaneously and generally refrains from calculating the consequences of her every decision. Krystian Zimerman’s actions on the other hand seem deeply thought out and carefully planned. As a result, they are fewer and farther between. Zimerman generally avoids the limelight, limits the number of live performances he gives, records relatively infrequently. As a result, each artistic endeavor he decides upon is awaited eagerly and closely watched.
Zimerman’s execution of both concertos at times differed at a very fundamental level from accepted standards, standards that hold, among other things, that the orchestral scores of Chopin’s works are a none too fortunate addition to the piano score. It is often said, with a dose of irony, that Chopin was no master of orchestral instrumentation and wrote voices that are difficult to play: the brass instrument parts are in the wrong registers, the strings, on the other hand, have such long note values that they cause the violinists pain… Approaching the orchestral score based on this conviction usually results in the execution of a piano piece with additional accompaniment played by an orchestra that exists apart from the pianist.
This translates into lack of respect for the integrality of the work, which Chopin nevertheless composed as a concert piece; and though the piano score is prioritized, the orchestra should perform in harmony with the soloist. The music of Chopin requires particularly sensitive performers and could indeed prove ungracious and boring to orchestras that restrict themselves to “replaying” an accompaniment. Chopin’s music must be felt, performers must open up to it, and this is no easy task for an orchestra.
The beauty of the orchestral score and the subtlety of the dialogue between the instruments of the orchestra and the piano only emerge in the best executions. Customarily, however, the piano is enveloped by a shapeless mass of background sound that eradicates individual voices and the unusual charm of Chopin’s instrumentation.
Love or Hate Zimerman
Audiences either outright love or intensely dislike Krystian Zimerman’s interpretations. His anti-military stance towards the U.S. war in the Middle East, following an incident in 2001 when his piano was destroyed after airport security at JFK airport determined it smelled like explosives, has also afforded him some negative press. On April 26, 2009 at the Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall that he would not perform in the United States in protest of American policy toward Poland. There is no doubt, however, that his performances move audiences.
It is doubtful that any one before him brought the orchestra so deep into the production of Chopin’s music. Krystian Zimerman also proved capable of selecting sensitive co-performers, with whom he offered some unusually stirring interpretations of the music of Chopin. In many movements and aspects, this interpretation differs from what we are used to, distances itself even from accepted canons of Chopinesque style. Is Krystian Zimerman abusing the right of an artist-performer to his or her own vision of a musical work? (Without resolving this issue, we can say that the artist has certainly modified the sheet music, adding eight measures to the end of the Allegro maestoso of the Piano Concerto in E minor, op.11.).
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