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I'm not completely satisfied with the answers so far, so more answers please! There's a nice bounty to be had!

These two titanic concertos are two of the most difficult often played concertos in piano literature, so they are talked about a lot. In most discussions, forums, or interviews with pianists I've seen, many pianists really love both.

In Alexis Weissenberg's commentary on the Rach 3, he writes "the Rachmaninoff Third has kept, and will keep forever and without the slightest doubt, a place apart in my heart. I still think it is the most gloriously written concerto for the piano." Most everybody calls it the hardest concerto that is performed often (perhaps due to the movie Shine), and a ton of people love, admire and respect (and fear) it.

Almost everything I've read about the Brahms 2 describes it as a very mature and grand work, requiring only the best and most mature musical interpretations. On the other hand, I've never seen the Rach 3 described as mature; glorious, saccharine, passionate, beautiful yes, but never mature. A lot of pianists seem to enjoy performing Rach's works, but they too will say that it's just "excessive climaxes" or “sugary drivel” or something like that. Furthermore, people will never attribute “musical depth” to Rachmaninoff, but I’ve seen it a couple times in reviews of composers ranging from Brahms to Scriabin.

Why, in these two very technically difficult, powerful, popular, romantic, and dare I say similar works, is there such a seemingly unanimous opinion people think that Brahms's concerto is mature and musical while Rachmaninoff's is less mature, "frivolous", “schmaltzy”, or "film score - esque"? Given that this opinion is so prevalent, is there something inherent about maturity in music that is objective and not subjective? Should maturity be something that music should strive for?

I’m intrigued by one of the ideas below that Brahms’s stature as a composer is due not only to his music but also and maybe even more importantly his critics. If it is so that critics are so powerful and can sway opinions (“incorrectly” or “correctly”) centuries after their deaths, isn’t that super detrimental to excellent but unlucky composers?

(This question isn’t limited to these two composers; late Beethoven is almost always described as extremely profound or transcendental, but rarely (if ever) Rachmaninoff or Liszt)

~~ I know this is a subjective question, but I hope that I've asked it well enough that it is a more constructive subjective question, which is allowed by site rules.

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    Interesting question. One answer might be found in music history: thanks to music critics like Eduard Hanslick, Brahms had a reputation of being the height of refined (and perhaps "mature") music, and perhaps this sentiment has extended to the present. The absolute music debate may also be rearing its head here. – Richard Dec 6 '18 at 0:25
  • You cannot hope to find an objective comparison of these two works based solely on their content. The mere fact that Brahms was 12 years older than Rach at the time of composition, and that it was published 28 years earlier, will inevitably influence people's judgement of their merit, and is impossible to disentangle from their perception of the relative merits. – Kilian Foth Dec 6 '18 at 11:09
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    I'm really looking forward to reading answers. Is it reasonable & correct to interpret this question as asking: for those who perceive Brahms 2 more mature than Rach 3 (a consensus), what is the basis/evidence/reason for their view? – jdjazz Dec 6 '18 at 22:38
  • @jdjazz yes, basically – D.R. Dec 7 '18 at 0:57
  • @jdjazz it seems like there are currently not that many answers, or views. Do you think this question is worth a bounty? – D.R. Dec 8 '18 at 21:51
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Calling the Brahms Second "mature", or the Rachmaninoff Third "film score - esque" is of course subjective. These old chestnuts can often be traced back to prominent critics whose work has simply been echoed by later generations. It is after all much easier to copy an authority's opinion than to form one's own.

You can check the old Grove's Dictionary entry for Rachmaninoff for an example of the conceited view of his music once prevalent. It was considered more tasteful to suggest an effect than to execute it outright. Rachmaninoff wore his heart on his sleeve and his music didn't please those for whom great restraint was a virtue. Deriding his music through comparison to film scores is ridiculous because it was he who influenced the film score composers.

I have a perspective on the Brahms Second as I studied it for a competition as a piano student. I will comment on it as a partial answer. I have read through but not studied the Rachmaninoff Third so have no perspective on it other than the opinion that it is much more difficult than the Brahms Second technically. Horowitz in his interview book with David Dubal even said that "the Brahms Second is not difficult at all", but let's not take him as the normal case!

The technical difficulties of the Brahms Second are generally unrewarding to the player in terms of effect. Subjectively, glittering virtuosity from the pianist-composers like Rachmaninoff and Liszt sounds good to the player, feels good to play, and on a superficial level impresses the audience. Much of the difficulty in the Brahms Second occurs in mere accompaniments, in passages which are far more difficult to play than they sound, and in arguably unpianistic writing in which ugliness or roughness of tone is very difficult to avoid. There is no easy success awaiting someone who studies this concerto. This suggests one motivation for calling it "mature".

The integration of piano and orchestra in the Brahms Second is at a high level. I can't find the reference just now, but I believe the Brahms concertos were derided by the opposing Liszt/Wagner faction as chamber music on a large scale. This judgement has been repeated many times since, but came to be seen as a virtue. Before studying this concerto, I had played his A major and C minor trios. The concerto felt like a continuation of the same kind of work. As I hinted above, much of the work in this concerto is spent in unforgiving accompaniment. Superficially, the chamber music players willingly submitting to the common cause might appear more "mature" than the flashy soloists insisting on their own part's prominence.

The conception of the Brahms Second is that of an older person, in my opinion. Over and above the general eschewal of obvious virtuosity, consider the crucial role of the last movement. How does it relate to the rest of the concerto? There is this comment by Tovey in one of his essays:

What tremendous triumph shall it express? Brahms's answer is such as only the greatest of artists can find; there are no adequate words for it (there never are for any art that is not itself words - and then there are only its own words). But it is, perhaps, not misleading to say here, as so often of Beethoven's finales, something like this: 'We have done our work - let the children play in the world which our work has made safer and happier for them.'

The music of a "mature" person, then. Tovey was a very influential critic in his time. These views spread easily.

I've suggested reasons from the points of view of restraint, pianism, composition, and conception for why this "mature" label might have come about.

  • Thank you for your answer on this old post! Your ideas are very interesting and a valuable addition to the discussion. Rachmaninoff’s 4th concerto is I think more “restrained” and less scintillating, and with a more active piano part (wrti.org/post/…). I wonder how that one will compare with Brahms ;) Do you think (personal opinion of course) maturity should be something musicians and composers strive for? – D.R. Apr 17 at 3:23
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    From a performer's perspective: maturity is just a by-product. It makes sense to seek constant growth, but young instrumentalists can suffer from the attempt to accelerate the process. Brendel spoke of an important realization early in his life that all his favorite performers happened to be at least 40 or 50 years old. He concluded that he had to cultivate patience, work constantly, and set himself a goal twenty years in the future rather than two. Youth is the time for piling up repertoire and solving every possible technical problem. [cont] – user48353 Apr 17 at 3:30
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    This opportunity can be lost if instead of mastering Chopin etudes, for example, a 15-year-old agonizes for months over the start of Schubert D960. In general, a 20-year-old debutant may compete with a 40-year-old professional in virtuosity but very, very rarely in richness of playing. Unfortunately, the exigencies of the modern competition circuit mean that young players feel they must grapple with the richest things in the repertoire (like Op111) because their competitors will if they don't. This is happening all the time. – user48353 Apr 17 at 3:33
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Thanks for an interesting question.

The music of Beethoven and Brahms are described as much by their biographies as by the music itself. I think of Brahms 2 as valedictory, especially when one compares it to the torturous path followed by his first piano concerto. It is definitely a mature work but I think the context it fits into in Brahm's life and work makes mature just that much more apt a description. The words triumphant or mature just naturally seem to lend themselves to Brahms the person as much as to any of his creations.

Beethoven is an almost mythological personage with an epic backstory. The late string quartets are so unusual that the usual adjectives don't really apply; combine this with the totally soundless environment of their creator and you get adjectives like otherworldly.

Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, doesn't have nearly this much emotion wrapped up in his biography. The fact that he created a lot of his finest works for his own concerts can, under a certain light, come off as rather businesslike. I don't think his works have the depth of emotion to begin with and combine that with a lack of backstory drama, he suffers by comparison with a Brahms or a Beethoven. Its almost like he was there to sell concert tickets and the more bang and wow and flash the better his returns, bang/wow/flash not being totally consistent with beauty and artfulness. I don't know enough about Rachmaninoff's bio or his music but I'd guess that his work wasn't of such depth that you can say it matured as he went along.

You mention Liszt and that's an odd one. His best works are as full of beauty and emotion as anything in, say, Chopin. But whereas nearly everything of Chopin's rather smallish output is a gem, Liszt suffers because of the substantial volume of works he produced. Many of his works, like Rachmaninoff's, were simply commercial ventures designed to wow his recital audiences. And Liszt himself, at least in the popular mind, was a successful and somewhat spoiled artist-ocrat, something that no doubt enters into his image today. And as far as maturing, Liszt's later piano work was almost experimental and not well understood.

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    I think many would disagree with the claim that Rach didn’t have as much of a emotive backstory; it was the a poorly conducted premiere of his 1st Symphony that led to a 3 year long depression where he refused to write anything. It haunted the rest of his life, leading him to rewrite or cut many of his major works (symphony 2, 4th piano concerto, sonata 2, etc). You do raise an interesting point about showiness. Both Rach and Liszt were considered one of the greatest pianists alive at their time, so perhaps their ability to profit off of their virtuosity paints a negative view of their works. – D.R. Dec 11 '18 at 2:10
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    @D.R. An artist who considered the rejection of their work to be enough of an emotional grounding for their next work would be a bit of a ham. Not that I know enough about Rachmaninov to say that comment applies to him, but artistic failrue isn't the same as some of these musicians (deaths of lovers, friends, children for example...). – Luke Sawczak Dec 11 '18 at 5:12
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    @LukeSawczak he wrote a 50 minute long trio for the death of Tchaikovsky, but it’s relatively unknown. He also fled his home (on a sled, to Finland, with a suitcase of manuscripts and his family) because of the Stalinist regime, and I personally think his work reflects the sadness of being completely out of place, culturally and musically. I’m sure he had his fair share of tragedies, and I don’t think it completely explains the difference between Brahms and Rach. – D.R. Dec 11 '18 at 5:53
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    @D.R. Fair enough. – Luke Sawczak Dec 11 '18 at 6:40
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    A late comment I know, but thanks to Moiseiwitsch and Horowitz the general biographical view today is that the First Symphony problems were secondary in the formation of Rachmaninoff's character, and that the crucial event in his early life was the uprooting from his opulent, noble beginnings to a nasty little flat when he was ten years old, combined with family tragedies at that time. This early home, not Russia itself, was what he missed, and what Moiseiwitsch interpreted as the basis for the "Return" prelude Op 32 No 10. – user48353 Apr 17 at 4:08

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