Exceptional artists to give their first joint concert

Valery Gergiev and Igor Levit as part of the Brahms Days in the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

Photo that shows Igor Levit 3© Felix Broede Sony Classical. © Felix Broede Sony Classical
© Felix Broede Sony Classical

They are at home on all the world’s major stages, but they have never shared a stage together: exceptional artists Igor Levit and Valery Gergiev. On Saturday, September 25, 2021 at 7 pm, they can be heard for the first time together in a concert in the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden. As part of the Brahms Days, the two celebrated musicians will be joined by the Münchner Philharmoniker in presenting Johannes Brahms's First Piano Concerto alongside Anton Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony.

"Two lamenting and exulting voices"

What an opening: thundering trills and a dramatic, imperious gesture. The force of this concerto’s beginning is unprecedented with its symphonic sweep. Johannes Brahms's First Piano Concerto is the central work of his Sturm und Drang period. Robert Schumann's suicide attempt on February 27, 1854, Brahms's futile and unrequited affection for Clara Schumann, and the stirring experience of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony find expression in the work.

However, the concerto was not particularly popular with his contemporaries: when the twenty-five-year-old Brahms sat at the piano as the soloist for the premiere at Hanover’s Königliches Hoftheater, the composition was uniformly panned. The press spoke of "a composer’s total defeat" and of having once again "buried a new composition." In retrospect, one has to grant that Brahms's piano concerto did in fact present new listening challenges. The unequivocal words of rejection also reflect what makes the piano concerto so special. The first, almost oversized and formally sprawling movement already features a variety of tonal facets. In Brahms’s own words, the second movement, the Adagio, depicts a “tender portrait” of Clara Schumann. And while the second movement pays homage to the principle of dialogue between orchestra and piano, in the Rondo of the third movement the different sound worlds of the orchestra and piano swirl around one another as if in a perpetual maelstrom. The piano asserts itself here both as an orchestra and with the orchestra – like two “lamenting and exulting voices.”

Today Brahms's First Piano Concerto is a popular classic of the genre. At the same time, it offers an enticing challenge for the orchestra and the pianist, who meet here “as equal partners,” in the words of Igor Levit.

The other Bruckner

Anton Bruckner, the second composer featured in the September 25 concert in the Festspielhaus, also thought very highly of his rival’s First Piano Concerto. The orchestral storms unleashed by the young Brahms at the beginning also bear a resemblance to Bruckner's volcanic eruptions. Compared to the long period Brahms required to compose his First Piano Concerto, Bruckner's Sixth Symphony almost seems like a rush job; it was finalized within a year. The composer himself described it as his "cheekiest" symphony – perhaps a reference to the secular character that lacks the religiousness that is otherwise omnipresent in his music. The beginning is already atypical: most of the Bruckner symphonies begin with a musical “primordial fog” from which the motifs of the piece slowly emerge. The Sixth, on the other hand, opens with an accentuated rhythm that is almost reminiscent of Ravel's Boléro, written fifty years later. Overall, the character of the Sixth is more lighthearted and worldly, the music more flowing.

Festspielhaus guests can look forward to an emotionally-charged concert program on September 25, 2021 – presented by two exceptional artists who will be appearing together for the first time.

Updated: 9/22/2021