A Piano Apart

John Marshall wants to have a beer with Johannes Brahms. He has some cello questions.

A Piano Apart
Young Kwak
John Marshall found Brahms dancing with a piano and asked if he could cut in.

Brahms' second piano concerto isn’t really a piano concerto. “It is not a usual piano concerto — it is a symphony with solo piano. That [distinction] is very important,” says Vladimir Feltsman, who will perform the piece this weekend with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra.

It’s not as if it’s piano versus orchestra. But where a more typical piano concerto would highlight the piano and entrust most of the melodic themes to it, Brahms’ second chooses a different path.

And Brahms 2 is a monster. The full orchestral score is 107 pages long and contains nearly 4,500 measures of music. It has four main sections — again, more like a symphony than a typical concerto’s three. It takes about 48 minutes to perform. And sometimes the piano isn’t even the featured instrument. For example, the only slow section of the four — the third-movement Andante — opens with a cello solo.

It’s the cello — meditative, dignified, and played this weekend by the SSO’s principal cellist, John Marshall — that bookends the third movement with a yearning melody. For nearly three minutes, the piano isn’t heard from at all, and it never even states the Andante’s theme.

At the outset, luxuriant strings repeat and elaborate the theme (which Brahms later turned into a song about lost love) until they overwhelm what has become a cello trio — which can still faintly be heard, love-longing in the darkness. Then, suddenly, the solo cello enters way up high.

Marshall calls it “a very magical moment that’s due to the genius and craft of Brahms. The cello solo blends into the rest of the orchestra, and then Brahms brings it back to the forefront, as if a fog is lifting.” He considers it “truly inspired and thoughtful writing.”

Next, the flute and clarinet nurse the cello’s meditations along, and just when they leave the cello alone for its quietest moment, the piano enters, softly — one trembling note after another in succession, a moonlit arpeggio that transports listeners into a world of romance.

Playing these solo passages, Marshall says, is “both a dream and a huge challenge. It is incredibly gorgeous music, but at the same time very difficult and highly exposed.”Marshall has played this music before — 14 years ago, back when Garrick Ohlsson performed Brahms’ second piano concerto here in Spokane — and it presents some technical challenges. The solo “occurs across several different strings,” Marshall says. “Each of my strings has a different brightness or color, and in the end, I don’t want the audience to hear any color difference between the strings. I am trying to play darker on the higher strings, and brighter on the lower strings, in an attempt to make it sound as if it is all on one string.”

This time, his approach has been less technical and “more lyrical,” he says. “It is almost as if Brahms was inserting an operatic aria into this piano concerto. So I have practiced it with a more vocal approach.”

There are plenty of cello concertos, of course, and cellists play prominent roles in symphonies like Shostakovich’s First and in famous overtures like the William Tell and the 1812. But there aren’t any comparable cello solos in any other piano concerto, Marshall says: “Why Brahms chose to highlight the cello in this concerto is a mystery. It’s almost as though Brahms were asking the cello to be a separate voice from the piano. If I could just have 15 minutes to sit down with him over a good beer … I would give anything to sit down with Brahms and ask him what he had in mind and how he wanted it to be performed.”

The soloist and cellist will have to blend their voices efficiently. For his part, Feltsman insists that he has little to coordinate with the cellist in the Andante or in the case of the horn solo (played here by Jennifer Scriggins Brummett) at the very start of the piece. And Feltsman wants rehearsals to be workmanlike — he has little patience for needless talk. In his pre-rehearsal meeting with Music Director Eckart Preu, Feltsman says, “We set the tempi, and that’s it. As for long-winded discussions of what the music means — this is total nonsense. If [the soloist and conductor] know what they are doing, then what happens will happen naturally, and there is no need to talk about it beforehand. And if it doesn’t, then no amount of discussion is going to make it happen.”

Rehearsal time is expensive and therefore limited. In Spokane, typically, there’s one working rehearsal on Friday night with the soloist, and then a run-through on Saturday morning before the first of two concerts is presented on Saturday night.

Marshall agrees that most of the musicians’ preparation precedes the large-group rehearsal.

“As professionals, we all come to the table knowing the difficult sections and have prepared our own parts so that there will be no problems fitting them together in a relatively short period of time.”

He’ll be ready to fit his six minutes of cello glory into the larger framework of Brahms’ not-really-a-concerto piano concerto.

Spokane Symphony Orchestra plays music of Martinu, Dvorak and Brahms • Oct. 23-24, Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm • $25-$52; $7-$11, student rush • The Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • http://www.spokanesymphony.org • 624-1200 or (800) 325-SEAT

Facing Fire: Art, Wildfire, and the End of Nature in the New West @ Jundt Art Museum

Mondays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Continues through May 13
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.