Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sunday Classics: In re. Brahms, is it possible for a composer who's a cornerstone of the classical repertory to be underappreciated?


The haunting second movement of Brahms's First Symphony is played by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Tokyo, 1981).

by Ken

I may have gotten ahead of myself with the head on last week's classical music post, about how "It wasn't easy being Brahms." I don't think I ever quite got around to explaining what was so hard about being Brahms.

It's probably overstating the case to say that Brahms spent his entire compositional career in a state of crisis-of-confidence -- but not by much. Brahms knew his work, or at least his best work, was good, and he had reinforcement from some excellent sources, most importantly the great composer (and also important music critic and benefactor) Robert Schumann and his wife, the admired pianist Clara Wieck Schumann, from both of whom he received unstinting support, patronage, and friendship.

"Good," yes, but what seems to have tortured Brahms was never quite knowing whether his work was good enough. His standards were high, and in this regard the scale of his genius actually worked against him. It put him in a unique position, not just to appreciate, but to understand -- in ways unavailable to anyone without his gifts -- the genius that always towered over him: Beethoven. If he'd been any less gifted, he might have been able to just shrug it off. But he understood only too well the standard to which he aspired.

There was, most famously (it's probably the first thing that pops out of even the sketchiest thumbnail sketch of his life and work), the inordinate difficulty he had producing his first symphony, with false starts beyond count -- one of which, far from failing, metamorphosed into a work as estimable as the First Piano Concerto. But with the specter of Beethoven's nine symphonies, and the monumental Ninth Symphony in particular, hovering over him, how could he dare to serve up a meager symphony of his own?

Brahms's for-real First Symphony wasn't performed until Nov. 4, 1876, when the composer was just about midway to his 44th birthday. The sketches for it dated back to 1855, he noted, meaning that he'd succeeded in completing this bag of shells in a mere 21 years. As if anyone was counting.

As I tried to suggest last week, Brahms was an incredibly hard worker, and with the hard work went a lot of pain and suffering. But as I also tried to suggest last week, he was also an incredibly competent worker. By the time he had finished with a piece, the thing was by gosh composed. Which is why, as I also tried to suggest last week, it's so sad and painful to see so many performers think they're being oh so clever when they perform Brahms's music by play-acting their woefully imagined version of the birth pains, showing off the sweat and agony and tears.

It's tempting to say that Brahms's lack of complete artistic self-confidence was misplaced. However, if he had been any less self-critical, would his work have been so remarkable? Consider, for example, his Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies. True, they each took him less than 21 years to write, yet they didn't come all that much easier than the First, but at the same time it would be hard to imagine four more wonderful pieces, or more durable ones (at any given moment, it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that all four are being performed somewhere in the world), or more different ones.


And this is worth stressing. Like most of Brahms's sizable body of work, the four symphonies have the singular quality that none of them much resemble one another, beyond speaking unmistakably in their composer's voice. As much as he dreaded failing to produce music worthy of his Beethovenian inspiration, or music that could be heard as a mere imitation of the master, he seems to have had a horror of repeating himself.

However much effort that First Symphony cost Brahms, it is by any standard a humdinger. The great conductor Hans von Bülow famously referred to it as "Beethoven's Tenth Symphony."

Most conspicuous are the two heaven-storming outer movements -- the first in tension-ridden C minor, the last in triumphant C major. But the movement I've stuck at the top of this post isn't either of these heaven-stormers, it's the movement that provides relief and rest from the high-voltage journey of the first movement: the radiant Andante sostenuto, which I can only describe as being lit by a glow from within.

The slow movement of the Brahms First is the subject of one of my most memorable musical memories. Once upon a time I had the opportunity to listen to it from one of the front rows of the mostly empty Shed at Tanglewood, then as now the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Actually, I can date the summer in question, because it was during my one and only Tanglewood visit, which was during the 1974 festival, when the Music Critics Association held its annual meeting there, celebrating the joint centenary years of composers Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Charles Ives (1874-1954). (Talk about a pair of musical twins!)

Which means it was the festival following Seiji Ozawa's first season (the first of an eventual 29) as music director of the BSO. The climax of that Tanglewood Festival was a performance of Schoenberg's stupendous dramatic cantata, or whatever you want to call it, Gurre-Lieder, which still stands among the handful of my most overwhelming artistic experiences. And I can verify that it wasn't just the excitement of the moment, or my imagination. When the Gurre-Lieder performance turned up on the weekly radio broadcasts of BSO concerts, of course I taped it, and the resulting cassette remains the worthiest recording of that astounding piece I've heard.


But to get back to the Brahms. It was an afternoon rehearsal -- on a miserably chilly, drizzly afternoon, as I recall -- to which visitors were admitted, and it was more a touch-up and run-through than an actual rehearsal. After all, goodness knows how many times the orchestra had played the piece, and they had presumably just done it with Seiji during the regular BSO season. So basically what I settled into my seat for was a run-through of that movement, with maybe some touching up, and a repeat.

Now you don't get by any means the best sound in any auditorium, let alone one like the open-air Tanglewood Shed, from the front rows. After all, both the symphony orchestra and the modern concert hall are designed to require a good quantity of space to resonate in. But you do get a particular sonic perspective, where the music washes over you and has the power to make you physically part of it.

What's more, the BSO itself has seemed to me over my lifetime of orchestra listening to produce, perhaps with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra (sorry, now we have to say "Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra"), the all-around most beautiful orchestral sound I've heard. This may not be coincidence, by the way. It hardly needs saying that the sound of any orchestra is heavily conditioned by the auditorium it calls home, and Boston's much-admired Symphony Hall was modeled on Amsterdam's Concertgebouw (literally "Concert Building").

Anyway, that afternoon's experience of this astonishing music has become part of me. Happily, it has been re-created, at least to an extent, in every at-least-competent performance of it I've heard since. I'm not optimistic that a YouTube clip can replicate that effect, and in any event I'm not sure Karajan's performance, even if we could hear it properly reproduced, is as sweepingly songful as the one Seiji and the BSO unleashed on me that drizzly afternoon. (Again, this isn't just my imagination at work. The slow movement in the DG recording they made about that time is remarkably beautiful. I've found that throughout his career, Seiji's basically amazingly sure natural musicianship, his feel for the inner unforced inner life of a musical phrase, has tended to be seriously underestimated by critics.) While we're carping, there's also the matter of the wan, whiny sound of the solo oboist, not what you'd expect to hear from an ensemble of the stature of the Berlin Philharmonic. However, it's actually intentional; in Berlin, that's how they like an oboe to sound. Apparently Berliners go weak in the knees and feel nearer to God from that sound.

Nevertheless, I'm going to invite you to sit back, relax, maybe close your eyes (heck, Maestro Herb's got his eyes closed), and let the clip work on you. I'm genuinely curious to hear whether it has any effect.


I notice that in my musical selections -- last week the gorgeous slow movement of the Double Concerto and the nostalgic opening movement of the Horn Trio, now the slow movement of the First Symphony -- I have gravitated to the reflective, lyrical Brahms. I'm sure that says something about my musical relationship with the composer, but not everything. These are, after all, just a few musical snapshots I've presented.

Still, in the interest of something different, here for your entertainment pleasure is "Vergebliches Ständchen"("Vain [or "Fruitless"] Serenade"), billed as a "Lower Rhine folksong" in Brahms's Op. 84. It's sung here by the lovely Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles, around 1957, with the peerless Gerald Moore at the piano (and the song translation lifted straight from the YouTube posting):

Good evening, my treasure,
good evening, sweet girl!
I come from love of you,
Ah, open the door,
open the door for me!

My door is locked,
and I won't let you in:
My mother has advised me well!
If you came in,
It would all be over for me!

The night is so cold,
and the wind so icy
that my heart will freeze,
and my love will be extinguished!
Open for me, sweet girl!

If your love starts dying,
then let it be extinguished!
If it keeps dying,
go home to bed, and rest!
Good night, my boy!

Okay, this little ditty, wonderful as it is, is hardly representative of Brahms's song output. While we're on the subject, though, it does seem fair to say that song-writing is one area in which Brahms surpassed Beethoven, though he stayed even clearer from opera. Beethoven produced just the one opera, Fidelio -- a blazing masterpiece, to be sure, but one that cost its creator years of never-quite-resolved struggle, doubt, and toil.


A couple of Beethoven's most characteristic forms were given short shrfit by Brahms. Although Brahms, like Beethoven and his patrons the Schumanns, was a pianist, and by all evidence an outstanding one, to set alongside Beethoven's mighty 32 sonatas he produced only three, and the last of them is as early as his Op. 5 (actually a fairly strong piece; there's a fine recording by the British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon). Brahms focused instead on an abundance of short-form piano writing.

And where Beethoven's 16 string quartets lie at the heart of his creative output, Brahms produced only three, and while they're all fine works, they're not among his most memorable. He actually seemed to find the string quintet (adding a second viola) and especially the string sextet more congenial -- the First String Sextet, Op. 18, is one of his most thoroughly lovable works. (In relatively perky performances the two sextets will fit on one CD, as with the lovely performances by violinst Yehudi Menuhin and friends.)

Actually, the three string quartets represents a quite respectable output among Brahms's chamber-music explorations. He wrote:

* two each: clarinet (or viola) sonatas, cello sonatas, string quintets, string sextets;

* three each: violin sonatas, piano trios, piano quartets, and string quartets;

* to go with the single Horn Trio, Clarinet Trio, Piano Quintet, and Clarinet Quintet.

Actually, the diversity as well as consistently high quality of these chamber roamings makes them in their own way a distinctive body of work, which a number of record companies have put out in more or less "complete" form. Brilliant Classics has assembled it from various sources in a 12-CD package that can be had (new) for as little as $44.24 on Amazon. com. The performances are never less than adequate, in most cases much more, and in a number of cases competitive with the best on records.

If there has been a definable change in the public face of Brahms over the last, say, 30 years, it's the emergence of the three piano quartets from the shadows. Individually and as a group these are some of my favorite Brahms works, and I still want to talk just a little more about them, and also offer some "Brahms Basics" recommendations, audio and video, beyond the following "quick hits" on the symphonies -- maybe next week, maybe not. We'll just have to see.


No doubt we should be considering the four symphonies individually, but we'd never get to the end of it. We'd probably barely get started.

That said, if I could have only one Brahms symphony cycle, there's no question in my mind that it would be the spacious but focused renderings (including the Tragic Overture and Haydn Variations) by Kurt Sanderling and the Staatskapelle Dresden, in radiant form. That Eurodisc set has been issued on CDin various forms but doesn't seem to be around now. (Sanderling's later recording, with the Staatskapelle Berlin, is too spacious even for my tastes.)

There's an EMI setof the sturdy, serious Klemperer/Philharmonia/EMI symphonies, Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures, Haydn Variations, and Alto Rhapsody (with Christa Ludwig). There's also a lovely Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic/DG setof the same works (also with Christa Ludwig, though at a much later vocal stage) minus the Academic Festival Overture.

There's a pretty decent "LSO Live" setof the symphonies, the Double Concerto, and the Second Serenade for orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. For that matter, you could do a lot worse than the beautifully played Philips Trio set(symphonies, overtures, Haydn Variations) by Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. And there are reasonably priced two-CD DG sets, stripped to just the symphonies, of the sleek Karajan/Berlin Brahms cycles from 1977-78and from 1989(except for the Fourth, which is from the 1977-78 cycle, probably to fit on the CD). Unfortunately, the more classically rigorous '60s cycle doesn't seem to be around.

As I mentioned last week in connection with Leonard Bernstein's DG recording of the Brahms Double Concerto, the period represented by his Vienna/DG Brahms is "later Lenny," which means it takes the dangerous path of stretching the music almost to (or beyond, depending on your sensibility, or indeed mood) the breaking point. I've found myself surprised how much more I like these performances than I once did -- and this performance of the Academic Festival Overture is something of a must-have.

The Academic Festival Overture, written as a "thank you" for Brahms's receipt of an honorary doctoral degree from Breslau University, is an amusing piece, yes, with its quotation of those university songs, but it's also a piece of gloriously grand stature. When I went looking awhile back for a decent performance of it among my CDs, I was shocked how perfunctory all the ones I listened to sounded. Then I happened to acquire Lenny's Vienna recording on CD, and my goodness! With his customary flair for drama, he accords the piece its full stature, building to a whopping climax at the "Gaudeamus igitur" outburst. Not only does it lift you out of your seat, but the piece actually becomes funnier played for real, for all its worth.

For those duly prepared (warned?), DG has a four-CD compendiumof the symphonies, overtures, and Haydn Variations, and a five-CD setadding the Violin Concerto (with Gidon Kremer) and the Double Concerto (with Kremer and Mischa Maisky).

On video, all of the above plus the Second Serenade and really fine performances of the two piano concertos with Krystian Zimerman can be had in a five-DVD set. Or the symphonies can be had by themselves on two DVDs.


Here is the updated list.

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At 3:13 PM, Blogger VG said...

Hi Ken- Thanks- I always enjoy reading your classical music posts.

At 7:52 AM, Anonymous robert dagg murphy said...

Thanks Ken, I love these classical interludes. Science, art, music and work the four highest achievements of humanity.

Politics and religion the two lowest.

All the bribes from K street could never produce anything as beautiful and the Brahms 2nd Symphony.


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