Written by Mary Byrne

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Serenade for Orchestra No. 2 in A Major, op. 16

Johannes Brahms took a long time to grow into his own musical skin.  While still in his 20s, he was dubbed by Robert Schumann as “The Young Eagle,” but he gives little evidence he feels that confidence in himself.  His musical upbringing was modest.  Growing up near the docks at Hamburg, he absorbed the earthy music of immigrants and refugees.  He made his living early on by playing popular music at social gatherings.  He moved only at the fringes of the professional music circle.  In short, he had no real direction:  so, he set off on a walking tour of the Rhineland as a 20th-something searching for himself.

On his Rhineland journey Brahms met and befriended Robert and Clara Schumann.  In the years following Robert’s death, Brahms maintained deep connections with Clara.  As he wrote his Serenade for orchestra no. 2 in A major, Brahms sent her working manuscripts and earnest requests for her thoughts.  Her replies were brief:  the music delighted her in almost every way, and even the places that delighted less would be subject to only minor changes.  The finished result is a supremely beautiful work for small orchestra with unusual orchestration, befitting the heritage of the best of Mozart’s serenades.

Brahms’ decision to score for a full wind section while dismissing the violin section is a bold decision.   One further time in his career he chose to exclude the violins from the orchestra:  that being the first movement of A German Requiem about seven years later.  His instrument choices give him a very particular set of sounds to work with.  What he loses in string brilliance, he gains back in the warmth of the lower strings with viola as the highest voice.  What he costs himself in string sonority, he gains back in the robust qualities of a wind section in full bloom.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the scrumptious opening of the work.

Dispelling any notions that the Serenade no. 2 is merely a preparatory symphony, Brahms gives the work five movements, not a symphony’s customary four.   The first tones we hear are rich winds drawing out an arching theme that is ripe for development.  As the music continues, Brahms skillfully repositions the theme between foreground and background, both as a full sweep and as broken fragments supporting other more energetic motives.  The first of two scherzos comes next.  Here Brahms hints at the Hungarian immigrant music he heard in his youth.  The third movement Adagio – centerpiece of the whole – is a thing of swaying beauty.  This was Clara Schumann’s favorite movement and she is said to have played it over and over again for herself on the piano.  Note how Brahms remakes the theme of the first movement into the grounding motive of this movement:  a unifying expression that binds these parts of the Serenade.  At first he lets the refreshed theme flow in short repeating phrases; later he squares it off to form pithy gestures; and sometimes he dismisses it all together.  This is Brahms at work, and it is wonderful!  The motion of the following movement, the second scherzo, is particularly lovely.  The phrases of the outer sections slide along like a soft-shoe dance, oblivious to the storm surges of the central Trio section.   In the final movement a loping gallop, bearing hints of the hunt, forms the main theme.  As a rondo form, we expect this theme to come back again and again – and it does – and we expect there to be intervening themes of contrasting spirit – which there are.  What is unexpected is the amazing variety of mood and perspective Brahms brings to all the melodies of this final movement.  It is an effervescent thing to enjoy – as it should be.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83 (1881)

Brahms’ first piano concerto appeared hard on the heels of the two orchestral serenades, but he would wait more than two decades before he produced a second piano concerto.  By the time he wrote the Piano Concerto no. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83, he was on firm professional footing.  His international reputation was such that he was showered by accolades and honours from around Europe and across the Atlantic.  His portfolio of published compositions left him a comfortable income.  His basic sense of frugality enabled him to travel a bit – Italy was a favorite destination – and to give away substantial sums to support those who would benefit from the help.  All of this meant that he was free to compose as he chose.

When he turned back to the concerto genre, he had just completed his first two symphonies.  We hear much of that monumentality and symphonic sweep in the Piano Concerto no. 2.  Brahms called this his “tiny, tiny concerto,” but it is no such thing.  The concerto is in four movements just like a typical symphony, not in the customary three movements as a concerto. However, for all its length – nearly an hour long – it rarely gives into weight, and never even nods toward pomposity.  The orchestra is moderate in size and Brahms writes with an intimacy often reserved for chamber musicians.  The music is conversational:  rather than being separated into blocks of sound, the two forces – piano and orchestra – collaborate throughout in the creation and unfolding of the music.

The first melody heard in the concerto is a simple but exquisite line in the horn which the piano echoes back in embellished form.  Even before this melody has a chance to settle, Brahms lets the piano take it through a cadenza.  When the tune emerges on the other side, the orchestra continues to work it and transform it into a second tune.  Eventually, a third melody is brought into the mix.  This is very much Brahms’ working procedure for the whole movement:  that of constant development.  His paint box of techniques is as inexhaustible as the colours and moods he achieves.  He even uses touches of orchestration as a point of orientation within the form:  smile when you notice it.  The huge first movement is followed by the lunging Allegro appassionato:  what Brahms called his “tiny, tiny scherzo.”  Of course, it is no tinier a scherzo than the concerto is a tiny concerto.  The movement wears appassionato on its sleeve, but also leaves room for passages of uncommon tenderness.  As with just about any music by Brahms, it is possible to just sit back and delight in the number of transformations he can bring to a body of basic musical material.  The third movement gives rest.  The strings, led by solo cello, are simply sublime at the opening.  Cello changes to bassoon; oboe joins the cello when it returns; and atop this, the piano floats in.  Absorbed, piano and orchestra follow the melody’s leads.  When the music is at its most delicate, the solo cello returns.  The story is nostalgic:  one that produces smiles and tears simultaneously.  Without bumping too hard into the previous movement, the fourth movement lightly dances away from its start.  Here we find absolutely no hint of self-importance.  There is a lot of sunshine; there are touches of exoticism; but on the whole not a lot knocks this light-hearted finale off its mark.