On Saturday, October 15, Jeremy Denk and the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Zimmerman will perform the First Symphony of Jean Sibelius and Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto.

I reached out to Denk and asked him about his relationship with this concerto, which he touches on in his recent memoir, Every Good Boy Does Fine.   

Jeremy Denk

EK: There are a number of genres of composition in which Brahms, in his entire career, wrote only two: the two serenades, the two concert overtures "Tragic" and "Academic Festival", the two clarinet sonatas, and the two string quintets and sextets. But all of these pairs have one thing in common: they were composed pretty close together in time.

Only the two cello sonatas and the two piano concertos are spaced much further apart in time. And, of course, the two piano concertos in particular really represent a striking contrast between a youthful work and a mature one.

What do you make of this? I often feel the first concerto represents a "frei aber einsam" young man looking within himself and trying to figure out (with some success!) who he is, whereas I see the second concerto as the utterance of a middle-aged man thinking more beyond himself, of himself and his place in the world and in the course of human history. How do you make sense of what Brahms is trying to say in the second concerto? 

JD: It’s fun to psychoanalyze Brahms—many people have tried, buckets and buckets of words have been spilled—and it’s because he’s this fascinating mixture of emotion and restraint. My friend Steven Isserlis, the cellist, often gets mad at Brahms for not letting go, for obsessively placing musical craft or distance between himself and the feeling. In this way Brahms is much like my father (and many people’s fathers, I sense).   

The first piano concerto does have a youthful way—it seems to spill out (to the extent that anything by Brahms spills out). You marvel at the vivid inspiration, the seeming ease, the soaring tunes. 

The second concerto also has wonderful tunes, but its inspiration is different. To my way of thinking, it’s a bit richer than the first, but denser, like a forest, and you can occasionally get lost in it, but then you come out into a clearing—okay, this metaphor is getting out of control. But hopefully you see what I mean? You wander through the forest, and there’s no obvious path, and so each time there’s a different piece, to some extent. 

Brahms was often obsessed with his place in music history. But I’m not sure I’d agree that this piece is “thinking of his place in the world in the course of human history.”  

I feel that the second concerto is mostly about musical wonders, and it’s stuffed almost too full of them.  The sound of the horn at the beginning, the simple act of the piano echoing it, just hearing, listening and repeating.   

Call and answer between horn and piano in the opening of the concerto
Call and answer between horn and piano in the opening of the concerto

The incredible virtuosity and sweep of the first cadenza. The syncopations in the orchestra immediately following—release, and joy, bounding forward against the gravity of the ideas. The small, still places where you wait to hear what comes next.  The wild, unleashed second theme—Brahms in his Hungarian Dances mode. Maybe in the first movement you feel a fundamental opposition of the pastoral and lyrical with this darkly passionate side. And you could say that’s the message of the movement? These two sides, not as drastic as Schumann’s two sides, but still in contradiction. 

The second movement has a different contradiction. The main dance theme surges relentlessly. But the second theme offers a sudden rebuke—an eerie stillness. The piano takes it up and adds harmonies, and—holy crap, what harmonies!—finding an even more extraordinary beauty in the barren theme. I think that’s why Brahms put that repeat in the second movement, because that theme was (justifiably) one of his favorite things he’d ever written, and he couldn’t resist playing it again. So the second movement switches between two kinds of passion, one constantly searching and the other quieter, hovering (but even more full, quivering with feeling). 

This is a long answer to your question! And I’m not sure I’ve answered it. I haven’t even gotten to the third movement, one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. There you can definitely feel an older Brahms, the sense of loss, the distilled nostalgia. But again (!), I don’t hear him considering his place in history. Instead, I hear Brahms, sharing with us, revealing, confessing to us the most intimate possible thoughts, and letting time unfold—music that’s really in this perfect late Romantic moment, with none of the pressure to be Beethoven or any of that. His most refined and personal style, a style that doesn’t depend on lots of fancy chromatic footwork (like, ahem, Wagner) but sticks mostly to more conventional harmonies and manages to find something new in them. 

After that, there’s only the charm of the last movement, the folk dance spinning out, a sense that even a composer as serious as Brahms can laugh at himself.  


EK: You mention this concerto in "Every Good Boy Does Fine": 

[Pianist György] Sebők gave a master class, at which I was scheduled to play. ...I played through the first movement of Brahms’s Second Concerto. ...I played with nervous caution, missing a few notes. In front of everyone, Sebők told me to close my eyes for a full minute. There was silence, and I could smell the smoke from his cigarette. Then he told me that I knew the piano better than I imagined. (This rang some bell in me.) He had me visualize the whole area of the keyboard around and including that low F that I had to start with; he enumerated notes to think about, the dangerous E-natural next door, the F-sharp just above; and then—he was very rational as he led me, step by step, through this mystical procedure—he had me play the very treacherous passage with my eyes still closed, throwing my left hand confidently into darkness. Whether it was chance, or whether Sebők had managed to unlock a subconscious knowledge of the keyboard accumulated through years of practice, I nailed the passage. The sound was deeper and richer, even thunderous. A lifetime of difficulty had been replaced with a moment of ease. 

This is a fascinating reflection for so many reasons, but one thing I wonder about: what if you had played something other than that? Might you have had a similar encounter with Sebők that day with a different piece? And how has your relationship with Brahms's Second Concerto been shaped over the years by this important experience you had with it years ago? What should I, and others in the audience listening to you on October 15th, be listening for as you play it, based on what you've told the world about yourself in the above passage? 

JD: Who knows what could have happened if I’d played a different piece? It does feel fateful, if one believes in fate. It was the perfect piece to play for him, because the lesson I got was so important, on music I’d loved for what felt like forever (since I was 12) and felt was such a peak of musical integrity—Sebők was all about musical integrity. Everything fell into place. A random masterclass encounter in which I found a soulmate, of sorts, and a physical solution to many, many problems.   

But I’m not sure you need to hear Saturday’s performance in light of this passage. I suppose I’d prefer people connect to the wonders of the piece more than to my biography. However! The ideas of release, and space, and the way music enables you to know things you didn’t realize you knew, to connect things you hadn’t connected—these are relevant both to Brahms’ Concerto and to the joys of learning (the subject of my book). As always, I will try to play with as much of Sebők as I can.   

EK: You played this concerto recently—in September, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. What did you discover about yourself and the piece then? Was this different in interesting or surprising ways from other encounters you've had with the concerto? How do you think your experience in Fairfax will be different—and how might it be similar? 

JD: The RSNO performance was my virgin voyage with the piece, since the age of 19—a daunting thing. It was extremely emotional for me to revisit this piece, which was such a huge part of my late teen years, after three decades. It was scary, and wild (and I went pretty wild at times!). Considering all that, it felt reasonably good. It has been marinating and deepening since then and I am excited to make this piece a regular part of my musical life.  

What’s great about this piece is how much of a dialogue with the orchestra it is—it’s almost more of a symphony than a concerto. And so it’s hard to predict how each different performance will be. You have to respond to the orchestra and feel out their energy, and vice versa, and there will always be a struggle, and the need to somehow overcome. That’s part of the nature of the piece.   

Enjoy Evan Keely's playlist of recordings by Jeremy Denk

Love Brahms? Learn more about his life on Classical Breakdown!

WETA Passport

Stream tens of thousands of hours of your PBS and local favorites with WETA Passport whenever and wherever you want. Catch up on a single episode or binge-watch full seasons before they air on TV.