Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto: An Intimate Colossus

I don’t mind telling you that I have written a tiny, tiny pianoforte concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo. This is how Johannes Brahms jokingly described the newly completed Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major in a letter to his friend and former student, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, dated July 7, 1881. In another letter, written around the same time, he referred flippantly to “some little piano pieces.” In fact, …

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Remembering Nelson Freire

Nelson Freire, the acclaimed Brazilian pianist, passed away earlier this week at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He was 77. Born in Boa Esperança, Freire began playing the piano around the age of four. One of his earliest teachers, Lucia Branco, studied with a student of Franz Liszt. At the age of 12, Freire performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and was a prizewinner at the Rio de Janeiro International Piano Competition. Shortly thereafter, he …

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Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G Major: A First Farewell

Johannes Brahms intended for the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 to be his final piece. In a December, 1890 correspondence with his publisher, Simrock, the 57-year-old composer slipped in the message, “With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.” Around the same time, Brahms told a friend that he “had achieved enough; here I had before me a carefree old …

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Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36, Harriet Krijgh and Friends

The British musicologist Sir Donald Tovey called the String Sextet No. 2 in G Major “the most ethereal of Brahms’ larger works.” Indeed, there is a sense of mystery and haunting celestial beauty underlying this music. Who could have imagined that G major can feel this melancholy and unsettled? Brahms was 31 years old when he wrote this music in 1864. In contrast to the warm, songlike Sextet No. 1, completed four years earlier, …

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Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody: The Wanderer Finds Solace

Early photographs of Johannes Brahms capture a solitary, contemplative figure. Brahms was a lifelong bachelor whose personal motto, Frei aber froh (“Free but happy”), found its way into the opening three pitches of the Third Symphony in the form of a musical cryptogram. The loving, platonic relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, and its creative influence, has been well-documented. Yet, scholars believe that for a period of time Brahms also harbored a deep, …

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Remembering Ivry Gitlis

Ivry Gitlis, the legendary Israeli violinist, has passed away. He was 98. Born in Haifa, Palestine to Russian-Jewish parents, Gitlis began playing the violin at the age of five. His teacher, Elisheva Velikovsky, had been a student of the German violinist, Adolph Busch. (About the same time, a  young Zvi Zeitlin studied with Velikovsky). Later, Gitlis studied with Mira Ben-Ami (a student of Joseph Szigeti). The influential violinist Bronisław Huberman opened doors …

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Brahms’ String Quartet No. 1 in C Minor: Music Written for Posterity

For Johannes Brahms, writing a string quartet was no casual undertaking. Brahms was profoundly aware that he was walking in the footsteps of giants—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert to be specific. In an 1869 letter to his publisher, Brahms noted that Mozart had taken “extreme care” with the set of six string quartets that he dedicated to Haydn. Now, Brahms intended to do his “very best to turn out one or two passably …

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