The Hidden Passion of Brahms’ Concertos

From the youthful First Piano Concerto through the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Brahms’ concertos offer an intimate portrait of the composer’s struggles and triumphs.

By Andrew Stiefel

Startlingly intimate, sparkling with virtuosity, Brahms’ four concertos offer some of his most alluring music. Although his four symphonies are more widely performed, they often feel like Brahms is keeping us at a distance, not quite letting us in. His concertos, in contrast, are filled with vulnerable moments.

The Seattle Symphony’s two-night Brahms Concerto Festival at Benaroya Hall on May 9 and May 10 offers a unique portrait of the composer and his creative struggles and triumphs. To perform the complete cycle of concertos, the festival welcomes five stellar soloists to the stage at Benaroya Hall, representing an exciting new generation of classical artists.

Cellist Jay Campbell performs the Brahms Double Concerto with Pablo Rus Broseta and the Seattle Symphony, May 10 at Benaroya Hall.

Among them is cellist Jay Campbell of the JACK Quartet, one of today’s foremost contemporary string quartets. Campbell has already recorded two wildly contrasting concertos with Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony, including one on a forth-coming release of music by contemporary French composer Marc-André Dalbavie. The other was released last year on a compendium of George Perle’s orchestral music.

“Something is going right in Seattle, and the [Seattle] Symphony is at the center, reimagining itself into 21st-century relevance without discarding the past — that Old and New cannot just coexist, but actively clarify and enhance each other,” Campbell explains. “Which, coincidentally, is exactly the quality I most admire in Brahms: the fusion of tradition and innovation.”

A meticulous craftsman, Brahms had a keen interest in the music from previous eras. The music of J.S. Bach, with its carefully crafted multiple voices and firm structures, was of particular interest to the young Brahms. His earliest works show a fascination with classical forms, but with harmonies that take us in surprising directions and complex rhythms that free the music to float above the bar lines.

Despite his own early creative successes, however, Brahms struggled with his reverence for Beethoven, whose towering legacy cast a long shadow over everything he wrote. He wouldn’t complete his first symphony until well into his 40s, late by most standards of the time.

Instead, Brahms turned to chamber music, composing a stream of sonatas, duets, trios, quartets, quintets and even some sextets. With smaller ensembles he could explore the combination of voices and lines, pushing boundaries and finding his voice.

The concerto, with its balance between soloist and orchestra, offered Brahms a path into writing for the symphony. Through his four concertos, we have a unique window into the composer’s development. They bookend his symphonic compositions, from the youthful first piano concerto through his final symphonic work, a double concerto for violin and cello.

Piano Concerto No. 1

The electrifying pianist Zee Zee performs Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Seattle Symphony on May 9.

The first piano concerto, performed by the electrifying pianist Zee Zee on May 9, offers a window into Brahms’ earliest attempts to write a symphony. Inspired by a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Brahms started work on sketches for his first symphony in 1854. At first a sonata for two pianos, he later expanded it for orchestra. Brahms eventually destroyed the score, but not before incorporating some of the music into the first movement of the piano concerto.

“The beginning of the first movement is so powerful, dramatic and dark, but the piano solo entrance is so lonely, singing by itself,” says Zee Zee, who will perform the concerto with Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and the Seattle Symphony. “This is one of those pieces that I can perform endless times and still find it more and more beautiful each time.”

We might love the First Piano Concerto today, but the premiere was a dismal failure; Brahms avoided the genre for the next twenty years. It was only through the encouragement of his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, that Brahms returned to the genre to start work on a violin concerto in 1878.

Violin Concerto

Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performs Brahms’ challenging Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony on May 9 at Benaroya Hall. (Photo: Jeff Fasano)

Gracing the second half of the program on May 9, Brahms’ Violin Concerto was completed in 1879 following the success of his first two symphonies. Similar to his first piano concerto, the violin concerto opens on a grand scale, the orchestra and principal oboe laying out the theme long before the violin takes it up at last.

The violin part is also notoriously challenging. The renowned conductor Hans von Bülow once griped that Brahms composed against the violin rather than for it, a notion that Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot will put to rest in his performance with the Seattle Symphony.

“What makes the Brahms Violin Concerto so spectacular is its unrelenting passion from the first bar until the last chord,” he explains. “As physically exhausting as it is for the soloist, this concerto contains so much dense and raw emotion that I don’t really notice how demanding it is to play. I like to hope that by being immersed in the atmosphere and mental space, that I can bring the audience on the journey with me through this magnificent composition.”

Piano Concerto No. 2

Russian pianist Yury Favorin brings his trademark virtuosity and elegance to Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, May 10 at Benaroya Hall.

Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, which concludes the final night of the festival on May 10, flows from the sketches of the violin concerto. Brahms started sketching both works in 1878 but turned his attention to the violin concerto first. Later he picked up the discarded sketches from his violin concerto and started fashioning them into a new piano concerto.

The Second Piano Concerto breaks from the traditional, three-movement, fast—slow—fast concerto form, an idea that Brahms had toyed with in sketches dating back to his First Piano Concerto. Fully expanded into four movements, the Second Piano Concerto achieves a truly symphonic scale.

Brahms would later jokingly describe the piece as a “tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.” He clearly meant this in jest — nothing about the score is tiny, from the expansive, four-movements to the difficulty of the piano part.

In his first visit to Seattle, Russian pianist Yury Favorin will bring his trademark virtuosity and elegance to the concerto, explaining that “each of its four movements is very important and keep the performer in permanent focus: you need to integrate very different ideas and moods — real beauty, dramatic collisions and nearly mathematical harmony.”

Double Concerto for Violin and Cello

Violinist Tessa Lark joins cellist Jay Campbell for Brahms’ Double Concerto, May 10 at Benaroya Hall.

But it’s in Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello that we most have the opportunity to meet the composer. One of today’s most captivating new artists, violinist Tessa Lark will join cellist Jay Campbell for the Seattle Symphony performance on May 10.

His final symphonic work, the concerto knits together Brahms’ approach to chamber music with the scale of his symphonic scores. The violin and cello are equal partners, playing off each other with the orchestra supporting and commenting.

It’s also tricky. The work opens with contrasting meters, creating a sense of instability as Brahms obscures the foundations beneath the flowing lines. The concerto, with its rich harmonies, elaborate counterpoint and soaring melodies glows with the warm, autumnal tone that marks most of Brahms’ late works.

Join Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and the Seattle Symphony for the Brahms Concerto Festival, May 9 & 10 at Benaroya Hall.


PLUS: University of Washington Professor Emeritus Dr. Larry Starr presents a talk exploring the enduring appeal of Brahms’ symphonic music on Friday, March 10, 2019 at 5:30pm in Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center.

Posted on May 3, 2019