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Reflections on Brahms’ D minor Piano Concerto

Jere­my Denk on Brahms’ First Piano Con­cer­to:

[P]art of what makes this first move­ment such a suc­cess is the bril­liant, instinc­tive plan­ning of epic events: his nar­ra­tive, pro­gram­mat­ic sense (nev­er mind “absolute music”). The open­ing orches­tral tut­ti is basi­cal­ly a ternary shape: bluster/lyricism/bluster. That is: a dra­mat­ic begin­ning, then a qui­et inter­lude, and then a return to the dra­mat­ic. The qui­et inter­lude (the “sec­ond theme,” sort of) has a deep, heavy melan­choly; the return to the dra­mat­ic takes a hero­ic, almost joy­ful turn. But some­thing is miss­ing from this vast pic­ture the orches­tra paints; as huge as the orches­tra attempts to be, as world-embrac­ing, it still can’t cap­ture every­thing. And when the piano comes in, lilt­ing­ly, you know, you think: this is pre­cise­ly what I’ve been miss­ing. It is lucid where every­thing has been opaque; it is humane where every­thing has been his­toric, trag­ic, or beyond our con­trol.

Denk’s writ­ing is whim­si­cal and poignant… and spot-on. This is exact­ly how I felt when I first heard the First Con­cer­to. I had tried lis­ten­ing to it a few times on a (fan­tas­tic) twofer with Fleisher/Szell and had a hard time get­ting into the first few min­utes, but once I did I found that the piano’s entrance was so sur­pris­ing, yet so nat­ur­al, and alto­geth­er per­fect. The end­ing is equal­ly as fit­ting and the entire work remains a favorite of mine.

I first start­ed lis­ten­ing to Brahms when I was trav­el­ing abroad in 2003. I had up until then had a hard time with his music; I found it too dense, I didn’t get it. But I spent a lot of time (on trains, in the evenings) with his music and, final­ly, I got it. Both this Con­cer­to and his First Sym­pho­ny were such rev­e­la­to­ry pieces to me — they were cer­tain­ly “absolute” like Denk assert­ed, but their respec­tive nar­ra­tives were so com­pelling to me, their final move­ments so cli­mac­tic and, well, final.

He cer­tain­ly con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion of Beethoven* (prob­a­bly the most faith­ful­ly of those com­posers that took up that task) and while I think I pre­fer Bruckner’s nar­ra­tive style (more dra­mat­ic and mys­te­ri­ous, less cere­bral), it was Brahms that exposed me to nar­ra­tive in music in the first place. And at this point, that is one of the foun­da­tion­al things I look for in music.

*- Side­note about this par­tic­u­lar con­cer­to: I liken it (at least the struc­ture of the first move­ment) to Mozart’s 20th: the key, the sturm und drang mood, the lyri­cal and year­ing entrance of the piano. I won­der if Brahms was con­scious­ly refer­ring to it.