[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.