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Johannes Brahms at the piano — Willy von Beckerath

There is a short list of concertos that are more like symphonies, and three of these concertos are composed by Johannes Brahms. I would argue further that perhaps the most symphony-like concerto ever written is Brahms’ Piano Concerto №2.

Brahms began composing this concerto in 1878, finishing it three later and was dedicated to his teacher, Eduard Marxsen. Stumbling upon the overlooked but obvious fact that a towering figure like Brahms had a teacher — to me, it’s like learning about Da Vinci’s teacher — is fascinating. It turns out that Marxsen composed quite a few works and that some pieces of his were performed quite often. Here’s a wonderful recording of Marxsen’s songs and piano works…certainly worth a listen!

There are 22 years that separate Brahms’s first piano concerto from his second and you can certainly hear the difference. The angst and drama, the sturm und drang, that is oozing out of every pour of the first concerto is replaced with a hefty dose of middle-aged confidence and perspective.

One of the reasons it resembles a symphony is that it has four movements. This may seem like an innocuous observation, but the number of concertos that have four movements is extremely low. Almost every concerto has just three movements. And, almost all symphonies have four movements, with very, very few symphonies having just three movements.

Brahms premiered the second concerto the year that it was completed, on November 9, 1881, in Budapest. It was an immediate hit and Brahms played it throughout Europe afterwards.

Here are my favorite performances.