Despax plays his dream concerto

Brahms always preferred to let his music do the talking rather than explain the origins of his work. 

That said, it is certainly interesting to look at what was happening in Brahms’s life when he started to write his first large scale composition – his Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor.  

By then he had met composer and music critic, Robert Schumann, who had declared in a music journal that Brahms was destined to be the next Beethoven. It would have made any young composer jittery, and for Brahms, who was still unknown, the accolade was not helpful. 

Robert Schumann would die before the concerto was eventually ready, five or so years later. 

Brahms finally performed it in public in 1859. Listening to Pianist Emmanuel Despax play it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I find it hard to believe that this glittering work, was such a monumental flop with his nineteenth century audience.

For Despax, the concerto was the first major work he wanted to perform as a young pianist. He vowed to take it to the stage and to record it. This he achieved after winning first prize at the Royal College of Music concerto competition.

On his new recording with Signum, we can see to what extent Despax is so close to Brahms’s work. His remarkable touch makes every note sing, and he manages to convey every ounce of feeling the young Brahms was trying to express at the time.

Brahms’s years with the Schumann couple had been productive but also filled with high drama and great sadness. Robert Schumann survived a suicide attempt only to succumb to pneumonia in an asylum. For the young Brahms, to lose his friend and supporter, had been a shock. And there was the matter of Schumann’s wife, the brilliant pianist and composer, Clara Schumann. Now a widower, with her husband’s seventh baby, Clara turned to Brahms for emotional and childcare support. It was a fair exchange for all the encouragement and guidance Brahms had received from her over the years, but it left him emotionally confused. All the conflicting emotions of sympathy, sorrow, shame, and a welling of love for Clara would all play themselves out in this concerto.

The first movement is twenty-four minutes long. Brahms was no doubt aiming for maximum impact with his audience. The concerto in fact is more like a symphony at first, the dramatic timpani, low horns, clarinets, and double basses evoking what could be the drama around Schumann’s suicide attempt. Schumann leaps into the Rhine. Descending notes evoke the plunge into deep waters. A delicate, unstable, recurring melody, meanwhile, taken up by the piano and orchestra, runs through the whole of the work, reminding us of the long, mental struggle that Schumann faced in his later years.

The exquisite second movement is more intimate and is dominated by the piano.  We are bathed in Brahms’s love for Clara Schumann. What comes through in the music, is not the usual lust and painful yearning a young man might have for an older woman. The Adagio is more nuanced – it is both meditative and impassioned. 

This is an astonishing work from someone so young (25) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton’s baton, brings all the rich orchestral colours to the fore.

The waltzes played by Despax and his Japanese wife are a refreshing addition to the album but it is the concerto that takes pride of place.

Here’s hoping Despax performs it live with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Litton in the not-too-distant future.


Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 16 Walzes Emmanuel Despax out on Signum Records

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