LENOX — Two outstanding Romantic piano concertos are being featured this weekend at Tanglewood: the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Frédéric Chopin, at 8 p.m., July 22, and the Second Piano Concerto of Johannes Brahms, 2:30 p.m., July 24. They represent very different ways of dealing with the genre.
The idea of highlighting a small group of instrumental soloists or a single soloist in front of an orchestra goes back to the 17th century. Those soloists were mostly string players in an era of great instrument manufacturers and performers. At that time, with rare exceptions, the keyboard player was relegated to an accompanying role, though that role was crucial in keeping time and providing harmonic support. Gradually, though, the keyboard instrument used to provide this basic support changed to the piano, which had both sustaining and carrying power, from the harpsichord, which didn’t. As a result, the piano came to be featured in front of the orchestra instead of buried in the middle of it.
Mozart became well known for his piano concertos and was influential in turning them into important vehicles of musical expression. In his late 20s he wrote many of them and appeared both as composer and as soloist. In the Romantic era, the piano became representative of the individual sensibility and when placed in front of an orchestra, as the individual, contrasted with a crowd. This theme was often the subject of Romantic novels.
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was actually the first of the two Chopin wrote (though it was published later, hence the numbering). It was completed a little before the Concerto No. 1, in 1829, when Chopin was just 20 years old. Chopin made a name for himself in Paris, where he moved from his native Poland. He was known for his “poetic genius” as well as for his astounding virtuosity on the piano.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 is a masterful blend of these two qualities. The dark F minor of the first movement gives way to a radiantly beautiful slow movement, which is “poetic” in the extreme, while the last movement is perky, providing gradually increasing opportunity for the soloist to dazzle the audience with racing runs up and down the keyboard, crushing chords, and fleet and fancy fingerwork.
The Brahms concerto is a different species altogether. Written in 1881, more than 50 years after Chopin’s, this is a substantial work of symphonic scope and breadth, in four rather than the traditional three movements, and lasting for more than 45 minutes. Some commentators (including this one) regard it as Brahms’s greatest work. The first movement is dominated by a superbly crafted theme, first heard at the outset in the solo horn. This theme has the same quality as one of Beethoven’s, in that it is made up of small elements that flow together naturally but that can be utilized separately as the basis for areas of continuous development. Listen to that opening horn call with great care!
The second movement is the “extra” one — a scherzo of great power and drive. With typical ironic understatement, Brahms referred to it as “a little wisp of a scherzo.” This is followed by a breathtakingly lyrical slow movement, which features a softly singing solo cello sharing the spotlight with the piano. We might expect a tumultuous finale, but Brahms provides us with music of grace and delicacy, almost a dance, to finish off this magnificent work.
UNDER THE SHED
A look at Tanglewood concerts at the Koussevitzky Music Shed this week ...
8 p.m., Friday, July 22: Karina Canellakis conducts Wagner, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff featuring Emanuel Ax, piano
Returning conductor Karina Canellakis and the BSO are joined by international pianist Emanuel Ax for a concert featuring Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2; Richard Wagner's Prelude to his opera "Lohengrin" and Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances." Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Ticket includes admission to the 6 p.m. prelude concert.
2:30 p.m., Saturday, July 23: BSO Family Concert with Thomas Wilkins
At a BSO Tanglewood Family Concert, parents and children get an up-close, welcoming introduction to the musicians of the BSO. Audience members can enjoy the performance in the Koussevitzky Music Shed or listen while relaxing on the lawn. Pre- and post-concert offerings include program-related arts activities and an Instrument Playground. Gates open at 1:30 p.m.
8 p.m., Saturday, July 23: Andris Nelsons conducts Berlioz and Mahler featuring Christine Goerke, soprano
The 2022 Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert. Acclaimed dramatic soprano Christine Goerke joins Music Director Andris Nelsons in a rarely heard early work by the French innovator Hector Berlioz. Another orchestral innovator, Gustav Mahler composed his towering Fifth Symphony in 1901-02 following an intensive study of J.S. Bach’s counterpoint, resulting in a new and highly individual approach to the orchestra. The fourth movement is the famous and moving Adagietto for strings and harp. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Ticket includes the 6 p.m. prelude concert.
2:30 p.m., Sunday, July 24: Andris Nelsons conducts Still, Walker, and Brahms featuring Latonia Moore, soprano and Seong-Jin Cho, piano
Working in the middle of the 20th century, William Grant Still was a pioneer in using the music of his African American heritage in works ranging from piano miniatures to opera. He wrote "In Memoriam" in 1943 after reading an announcement “that the first American soldier killed in World War II was a Negro soldier.”
His somber piece honored the patriotism of all soldiers of color that served in the Allied armies. Soprano Latonia Moore sings American composer George Walker's 'Lilacs,' a setting of Walt Whitman's ode to Abraham Lincoln. Commissioned by the BSO and premiered under Seiji Ozawa in February 1996, "Lilacs" went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Young superstar Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho is soloist in Johannes Brahms’ virtuosic and profound Piano Concerto No. 2 to complete the program. Gates open at noon.
More information and tickets: 888-266-1200, bso.org