BBC Concerts

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

It is a mystery why Brahms never wrote anything greater than his D minor piano concerto. Had he chosen to recast it as a symphony for orchestra and piano after his later experience as a writer of symphonies, what a masterpiece he would have made of it. Even now its supremacy lies in the unyielding quality of his thoughts, particularly in the first movement, one of the most powerful pieces of music ever written, where the blows fall with shattering effect, and yet without making any apparent effect on the object assailed, for the movement is unmistakably the triumph of defeat. There is no more tragic document in the realm of music than the first movement of this concerto; it is worthy of Euripides.

Unless a performance is keyed to the peculiar quality of its tragic pitch, we do not get Brahms. At the BBC performance at Queens Hall on February 14th with Schnabel as soloist and Boult as conductor, the blows in the first movement did not fall either fast or thick enough, which is not to infer that we needed more noise, though had the woodwind been doubled in this work the performance would have been improved. The slow movement was made arid and sleepy, which is not quite its character. More unity of purpose was achieved in the final Rondo, whose flow and colour though less turgid than the first movement is yet more difficult to negotiate because of the diversity and agitation of its rhythm. For instance, the episodical fugato almost caught the strings napping. But the Rondo did travel and the impression was thoroughly Brahmsian. Vaughan Williams’s orchestral pageant Job, founded on Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job, appropriately followed the Brahms Concerto. It was magnificently performed and enthusiastically applauded.


Musical opinion, March 1934, p. 528