Every now and again some cud-chewing Hollywood exec decides it's time to release yet another movie about a big mountain and the adventure-seeking, one-dimensional characters who endeavor to conquer it. Those brave souls who crave more than a molehill might prefer pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the San Francisco Symphony attempting the Everest of piano concerti — Brahms' Second.
When the concerto originally premiered in Budapest in 1881, Brahms himself was the featured soloist. At the then-ancient age of 48, having long since given up regular practicing, Brahms performed the monumental piece without wavering. This feat was even more astounding considering that the concerto has four movements instead of the usual three. In fact, Piano Concerto No. 2, clocking in at just under an hour, is greater in length and scope than any other symphony Brahms produced.
In this massive opus, the devil has no time to make inroads, as the pianist's hands are rarely idle. The first movement is an unorthodox call-and-response between horn and piano that builds to a grand argument with the entire orchestra. The range and complexity of the second movement — which progresses from contemplation to fervor in the space of a few measures — makes for a spectacular counterpoint. When asked for an explanation for this “extra” movement, Brahms wrote that he found the allegro and andante movements “too simple … not strongly passionate.” Yet the rhapsodic third movement is the true test of ability, demanding a balance of piano, cello, and orchestra that almost renders the term “soloist” a misnomer. While many composers have since explored the form of the four-movement concerto, Brahms planted the flag first, claiming it for Germany.