Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2
Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen
LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854-1928)

If Bedřich Smetana is regarded as the great-grandfather of Czech music and Antonín Dvořák as the grandfather, Leoš Janáček was the logical heir to their tradition and, in his turn, the father of modern Czech music. Janáček was a late bloomer. Although his musical talent manifested itself early, most of his youthful works were cloaked in the forms and style of the late 19th-century romantics, garb that ill-suited Janáček. Eventually he abandoned those models, seeking more personal expression. Like his younger contemporaries Bartók and Kodály in Hungary, he became absorbed with the folk music of his native land, developing a highly individual musical language. His mature style derives in large part from the speech cadences of Slovak tongues, and the rhythms and melodies of Moravian folk music.

Listening to the voice of the people - literally

Janáček considered his operas to be his best works. The opera Jenůfa (1904) was a turning point for him delving into the rhythms and inflections of the Czech language. He once said, “When anyone speaks to me, I listen more to the tonal modulations in his voice than to what he is actually saying.” After Jenůfa, he constructed all his music from simple melodic motives that evoke his mother tongue.

Mother Nature and the eternal life cycle

The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) is a gloriously romantic opera whose protagonists are a pair of foxes. Janáček crafted his libretto after a Czech novel that was in turn written to accompany cartoon drawings that appeared in a Brno newspaper. The basic premise is a young female fox who is reared by a gamekeeper in captivity. She escapes, finds a mate and rears a family. Humans and a wide variety of animals interact and converse, fall in love and lament lost love, squabble and deceive, procreate and die. The anthropomorphic message is one of renewal: the power of Nature and the eternal perpetuation of the life cycle.

Janáček was a great nature lover. More than in any other composition, we hear in the score to The Cunning Little Vixen the sounds of nature. Its characters include Mosquito, Badger, Blue Dragonfly, Cricket, Grasshopper, Frog, Owl and Woodpecker, as well as the gamekeeper’s hens and dog. The opera includes a ballet sequence for gnats, squirrels, and hedgehog and Blue Dragonfly’s dance, when the vixen and her fox retreat to her burrow to mate.

Initially, Janáček did not wish to extract an orchestral suite from the opera. Late in life he reconsidered. Nine years after his death, the task fell to the conductor Václav Talich, who compiled the suite in 1937 for a revival of the opera in Prague. Talich drew on preludes and instrumental interludes in the score as well as some vocal segments. Nearly 30 years later, the Czech oboist and conductor Václav Smetáček revised it. Renowned Janáček conductor Sir Charles Mackerras arranged the Suite we hear in 2006, preserving Janáček’s original instrumentation.

The score calls for four flutes (two doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, 2 clarineta (second doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, harp, celesta, and strings.

Symphony No. 4

Polish pioneer

When he died 25 years ago, Witold Lutosławski was the senior statesman among Poland's composers. Along with his younger contemporary Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933), he led a 20th-century Renaissance in Polish music, drawing international attention to new music behind the Iron Curtain during the most stifling years of Communist rule.

Lutosławski earned his reputation as a formalist. He retained it as a master orchestrator and daring experimenter over the course of a long and fruitful life. His career took some surprising turns, not only because of political upheaval in Poland, but also because he was open-minded. He shifted directions several times, continually exploring. Microrhythms and microtones, the coloristic potential of various instrumental combinations, and the very process of music-making are some of the areas he addressed in his music.

Some of his early works, such as the popular Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) embraced Polish folk music and a neo-Bartókian synthesis of ethnic material into a personal musical language. His middle-period works employed serialism, chance operations, and a re-thinking of tonality, but never at the expense of formal clarity. Late in life, he developed a new process he called “chain technique,” with overlapping strands of musical material. Starting in the 1960s, he experimented with aleatory, music with elements of chance and indeterminacy.

The Symphony No.4 was his last completed composition. A single movement of approximately 22 minutes, it consists of two principal sections that are performed without pause. The first part unfolds slowly, with mysterious, chordal textures in strings and harp illuminated by slivers of light in the high winds. Gradually he interpolates exclamations of more mercurial material, often highlighting several solo instruments in the same family [woodwinds, brass, strings, or percussion]. Several such sections are labeled ad libitum, and a composer’s note specifies that they are not conducted. “Each plays his part as if he were playing alone and does not coordinate with the other performers,” Lutosławski wrote.

Such freedoms lend elasticity and spontaneity to the piece, yet present extraordinary challenges for the conductor. We get caught up in the kaleidoscope of delicate textures and subtle musical connections that unify the symphony. While the experience of listening stretches our ears and fires our imaginations, this music asks more questions than it answers.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned Lutosławski’s Symphony No.4. The composer conducted the premiere in Los Angeles on 5 February, 1993. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, B-flat clarinet, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion [bass drum, bongos, chimes, glockenspiel, marimba, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam tam, tenor drum, tom toms, vibraphone, xylophone], 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings.


Lutosławski’s career was strongly affected by Poland’s turbulent history in the mid-20th century. He graduated from Warsaw Conservatory in 1937, at which point he had been a performing pianist and violinist for five years. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Lutosławski joined the Polish army, working at a military radio station. He spent much of the war pursuing ways to subvert Nazi cultural restrictions. With his countryman Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), he organized underground performances of music banned by the Germans.

Post-war Poland was a Stalinist puppet state. Performing and visual artists carried on amid a different type of cultural repression. Like most composers, Lutosławski survived by pursuing two simultaneous paths. One was music that satisfied the authorities, complying with the official policy of socialist realism. These works earned him his living. The second category he called "serious": works that more truly reflected his soul.

After the Communist authorities denounced his First Symphony in 1949 as “formalist,” Lutosławski largely withdrew from public concert life. For the next few years, he made a conscious effort to incorporate the rhythms and inflections of Polish folk music into his compositions. When Stalin died in 1953, Poland gradually moved into an era known as the “thaw,” and Lutosławski completely rethought his musical philosophy and compositional technique. Abandoning the folkloric element, he developed a vocabulary that used twelve-tone chords in an essentially tonal style. In the 1960s, he experimented with limited aleatory [music subject to chance].

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op.83

A paean to French horn and cello

If anyone needed convincing that French horn was Brahms' favorite orchestral instrument, the opening to the Second Piano Concerto would clinch the argument persuasively. Dreamy and effortlessly beautiful, the unsupported horn melody sets the stage for one of the nineteenth century's greatest musical dramas, with simplicity and majesty. Much of this first movement is a paean to the horn, which returns with its transcendent theme [see sidebar] at key points in this monumental first act of the drama. Its poetic interaction with the piano floats into our consciousness, providing us with faith that clear skies will ultimately prevail over the tempests that follow. Brahms' writing for the horn is both loving and knowledgeable. As Bernard Jacobson has written:

Brahms's use of a single instrument [horn] places all the emphasis on the intensely personal poetry of unsupported horn tone, and this is borne out by the continued association of the theme with the instrument later on at two of the most magical moments in the movement.

No less remarkable is the obbligato role that Brahms provided for principal cello in the third movement, Andante. Again, the idea of poetry in sound leaps to mind. For this intimate, private music Brahms features the most human-sounding and the warmest of the string instruments, endowing it with a part that is prized as one of the choicest cello solos in the entire orchestral literature.

Pianist as the dominant stripe in an orchestral fabric

Where does the piano fit into this? Isn't this supposed to be a piano concerto, after all? What was Brahms up to? For one thing, he treasured his orchestra. By 1881 he was in his late forties, an experienced orchestral composer who fully understood his players and their potential. Second, he conceived of the piano as an integral and closely-woven component of the orchestral fabric. Third, he had a gift for capturing an unexpected chamber-like moment, a brief subplot, amid the complex larger drama of this very large, decidedly symphonic composition. Horn and cello are merely the most outstanding examples of his orchestral favoritism and glorious attention to detail in the Second Concerto; there is also, for example, a delicious chamber-like role for the two clarinets in the slow movement.

Majesty, struggle, and Olympian drama

Brahms began sketches for the Concerto in 1878 after his first Italian journey. It grew to such enormous proportions that he did not complete it for another three years, until the summer of 1881 in Pressbaum, not far from Vienna. Although perhaps less dramatic and passionate than the earlier Piano Concerto in D minor (1854-58), and less transcendently tranquil than the Violin Concerto of 1878, the B-flat Concerto has a majesty and struggle that place it in a category all its own. Serenity reigns in this work, despite Olympian drama that rages fiercely through the first two movements.

The piece requires a major piano virtuoso with stamina, physical strength, and mature metaphysical insight. Its technical challenges are formidable, with huge chords, a variety of demanding passage work in octaves, thirds and sixths, a complex musical texture and highly sophisticated rhythmic patterns, especially in the finale. Brahms draws upon all the formidable technical arsenal of his "Handel" Variations for solo piano, and then some. He combines the musical sophistication of his mature chamber music with the orchestral mastery of the symphonies and the virtuosic power display of the youthful piano compositions. It hardly comes as a surprise that Brahms -- himself the first soloist in 1881 at Meiningen -- referred rather wryly to this concerto as "the long terror."


The orchestra takes no back seat in this concerto. Brahms’ writing is demanding and rewarding for the full ensemble, with particularly rich parts for horn and cello.

Brahms loved the horn and wrote great horn parts for all his symphonies and concertos. The beginning of the Second Piano Concerto is particularly treacherous, however, because the principal horn is completely unsupported: out there all alone. Horn players like to jest that if you can play the opening solo, you can sit back and enjoy 40 minutes of some of the greatest music ever written. That’s the up side. The down side is that if one should stumble at the start, the next 40 minutes will seem like an eternity.

Brahms uses that glorious theme throughout his opening movement. Later on, he allocates a secondary solo – but still a substantial one – to third horn. This time, it is based on the same theme pitched a fifth higher. Because of special moments like those, the parts for the horns in the Second Piano Concerto are rewarding for the entire section.

In the slow movement, principal cello joins the piano for an eloquent duet - but not until after its own extended solo introduces Brahms’ gorgeous melodic material. The movement is legendary among cellists, and is requirement on every audition for a principal position.

In performance, cellists take great pleasure in playing it. After the sprawling grandeur of the first movement and the storm of the second, the intimacy of this Andante is magical. The cello has this glorious interaction, first with principal oboe, then with the piano soloist. In an otherwise oversize work, this movement comes across as tender and personal. It is almost as if Brahms had inserted a piece of chamber music in the midst of his concerto.

The French horn and cello sections keep busy throughout the Second Concerto, but their special moments linger in the memory along with the majestic piano part.

“A tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”

The day he completed the manuscript, 7 July 1881, Brahms wrote to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg of his most recent accomplishment: "a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo." The massive first movement -- so peaceably introduced by solo horn -- is followed by a tempestuous scherzo that breaks from tradition and emphasizes the symphonic character of this concerto. Where the opening movement expands sonata form to its very limits, the scherzo compresses it. Explosive fury propels this movement, whose tempo marking, Allegro appassionato, recalls the romantic passion of Brahms' youthful compositions. The central Trio, in D major, bursts through the thunderous storm clouds like a joyous ray of sunlight. Ultimately the storm returns.

Graciousness amid rhythmic games

A lilting rondo tinged with Hungarian flavor closes the concerto. Brahms’ witty and graceful finale is a maze of rhythmic games. He toys with cross-rhythms and phrases that regularly travel across bar-lines, resulting in an ongoing ambivalence between duple and triple meter. Trumpets and drums have no place in this gracious movement. As Peter Latham has observed, "for the sustained lightness and brilliance of this music there is only one model -- Mozart."

Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus four horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo piano and strings

© Laurie Shulman, 2019