Concerto in A-flat minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 88a
(b. Cologne, 6 January 1838 – d. Friedenau near Berlin, 2 October 1920)
Concerto in A-flat minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra, op. 88a
Andante sostenuto p.1
Andante con moto – Allegro molto vivace p.21
Adagio ma non troppo p.75
Andante – Allegro p.98
Reading Max Bruch’s pejorative views on the piano in his letters, and listening to the Concerto in A-flat minor for two pianos and orchestra, op. 88a, written toward the end of his life, one can hardly believe that they proceeded from the same pen. His attitude toward the piano can best be described as ambivalent. On the one hand, he was a trained pianist whom his contemporaries held in high esteem even at an advanced age.1 On the other hand, he developed a disaffection towards the instrument early in his career that would eventually grow into a genuine aversion. Yet Bruch was aware that this attitude was diametrically opposed to such romantic composers as Mendelssohn and Schumann, in whose tradition he placed his own compositions to the end of his days, and whose legacy he always zealously defended.2 In this light, a letter that he wrote to his friend Rudolf von Beckerath in 1870 impressively exemplifies his ambivalence:
“My piano music is dull and insignificant. I haven’t written a note for the piano in ten years. As I’m not actually interested in the instrument I can’t create anything for it. […] This is, I believe, a very harsh expression of the inward opposition I feel toward the Schumann school. Everything in Schumann and his disciples proceeded from the piano; his contemporaries Chopin [and] Hiller also thought initially in pianistic terms. I cannot think in those terms at all any more.”3
All the more astonishing, then, that Bruch should have created his greatest work for the piano, the Concerto in A-flat minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra (op. 88a), in 1915. Here the above-mentioned ambivalence is nowhere to be seen; on the contrary, the use of the solo pianos impressively demonstrates his skill in handling the instrument.
Bruch originally composed his op. 88a over a fairly long period, between 1904 and 1915, as a Suite for Orchestra and Organ. This version, however, never reached publication.4 Although the concerto thus evolved from an arrangement, the new version does much more than simply exchange the organ for two pianos. Instead, the relation between orchestra and soloist has been realigned and adapted to accommodate the piano’s specific qualities. In this sense, he clearly sought to lend the work the expressive power and radiance of the piano.
No less remarkable than Bruch’s return to the piano are the character of the Concerto and the relation between its title and formal design. Here, too, the composer departed from his standard practice until then. In the very first bars we are immediately struck by the tutti passage following the opening fanfares from the pianos; it unleashes a dramatic force of an intensity previously unknown in Bruch’s instrumental music. This dramatic opening is followed by a fugato interspersed with the mighty, terrifying hammerblows of the initial fanfare. The subject of the fugato is a dirge-like melody that Bruch had heard and written down during a Good Friday procession on the Isle of Capri, where he was taking a health cure.5
The combination of dramatic expressivity and subsequent fugato recalls a dramaturgy of the sort that Bach applied in his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903) or the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, op. 110. In each case the expression of grief and distress is followed by a fugue, thereby creating a “discourse of lamentation and solace.” 6
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