Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Pianist – Hélène Grimaud

Pianist Hélène Grimaud, who made her debut on this blog last month in an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, clearly deserves more than just a single hearing.  For her return engagement, I have chosen this performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.

Johannes Brahms in 1853

I have loved Brahms’ first concerto almost from the beginning, from that time in my distant past when my knowledge and love of classical music were growing at a truly extraordinary rate, and I felt much as Columbus must have felt upon discovering the New World.  What unimaginable riches lay ahead of me!  Where to begin my exploration?  As it happens, I was not without guidance, and made some excellent – even if mainstream – choices, one of which was Van Cliburn’s 1964 recording of this concerto with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a performance I have loved ever since.

In the liner notes to that recording, the novelist James Michener writes as follows about the genesis of this concerto:

At twenty, Brahms had enormous acclaim, and promptly fell in love with the wife of his benefactor (Robert Schumann).  Clara Schumann was fourteen years older than Brahms and the mother of six children with a seventh on the way.  This was a love affair that would haunt Brahms for decades and prevent him from marrying any of the younger women who idolized him.  Then, as if in condemnation of his young protégé, Robert Schumann went out of his mind, tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide and was placed in an asylum, where he died.  Brahms trailed Clara through Europe, helping her with her seven children and relying upon her for spiritual and artistic guidance.

During this period of emotional turbulence Brahms heard a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and decided that the time had come when he must try a symphony of his own.  So at twenty-one he began drafting the traditional four movements, and each showed promise.  But he was diffident about his capacity to score his ideas for orchestra, so he made the fatal mistake of putting them down provisionally in the form of a sonata for two pianos, believing that when he had done so he could easily go back and shift them into symphonic orchestration.

The pianos took over!  Try as he might, he could not transfer his ideas into symphonic form, nor could he erase the essential piano structure of what he had written.  He was disconsolate and thought of junking the project, but then, as he explained in a letter to Clara, a dream came to him in which he heard his abortive symphony as a full-fledged piano concerto.  But with a completely new finale!

He had the clue he needed.  Keeping the first two movements of his symphony, he converted them into the first two movements we hear on this record.  The last movement of his symphony he threw away and we never hear of it again.  But the third movement, a saraband funeral march, he laid aside to use years later as the great second movement of his German Requiem.  Then, starting from scratch, he composed a new finale, which we hear in this recording pretty much as he must have heard it in his dream.

Considering its beginnings, it’s not surprising that the Brahms D minor is, in my opinion at least, the most symphonic of all concerti, but it is a great deal more than that.  Listen to what Ms. Grimaud herself says about this concerto in the remarkable documentary, “Living with Wolves”, which you can watch in its entirety at

For me, Brahms’ First Concerto is a vital piece; it’s a piece I need to survive, and there aren’t very many of those, perhaps two or three.  It was written fairly early in Brahms’ life, and for me it’s a testament; it’s a requiem.  It has a density and a gravity of expression that I find very moving, and one of the things I love the most about it is this raw power.

I always think of Schumann, because when Brahms wrote it, it was after Schumann’s first suicide attempt, and when I hear the orchestral introduction, which is of course fairly long… I see my life unrolling as the music goes.  It’s a very, very personal experience for me.

Ms. Grimaud’s allusion to the gravity of expression of this concerto calls to mind something I have felt for a long time: Whether or not it drew its inspiration from the circumstance of Schumann’s attempted suicide, Brahms’ First Concerto – intensely dramatic, unabashedly tender, joyfully victorious – is the most profound piano concerto ever written.

In this 2005 performance, the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Michael Gielen at the Festival Theater in Baden-Baden.

Published in: on March 31, 2012 at 9:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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