This concert presents two mature, large-scale Austro-German works by late–19th century composers at the peak of their careers. Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto is a four-movement concerto with the ambition and length of a big symphony. It combines grandeur with intimacy, introspection with whimsy, and passion with Classical restraint, requiring spectacular technique from the soloist even though the piano writing is rarely virtuosic for its own sake. Much of Brahms’s signatures are apparent, including a complex first movement that presents a variety of ideas, a slow movement that features a simple but gorgeous song, a dancelike but melancholy scherzo, and a finale that unleashes a joyous succession of themes in rondo form, recalling the finale of the Violin Concerto and Brahms’s various Hungarian dances.
With its stunning orchestral technology and its numerous references to his earlier tone poems, Ein Heldenleben is also a grandiose summation of its composer’s art. It is more specifically retrospective, depicting Strauss’s career, his love life, and even his battles with critics. The huge orchestra—which includes five trumpets, eight horns, and dozens of strings—is a key part of the work’s ambition. Strauss meant the “hero” in this grandiose tone poem’s title to be himself, and the piece represents a culmination of his aesthetic, quoting some 30 themes from earlier works while introducing new ones. The most dramatic section is “The Hero’s Battlefield,” which develops all the previous themes in blazing counterpoint.