Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Classics: It wasn't easy being Brahms -- but for the rest of us it was sure worth it


The haunting slow movement of Brahms's Double Concerto is played by the young brothers Capu├žon, Renaud (violin, born 1976) and Gautier (cello, born 1981), with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung.

by Ken

I thought we could ease our way back into these weekly classical music posts, with a sort of "tease," a down payment toward some discussion-to-follow (next week?) of one of the best-know and yet most persistently misunderstood and misrepresented of all composers.

What's more, I thought I had the perfect choice: the gorgeous, positively haunting slow movement of Brahms's Double Concerto -- or, more properly, the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102. [Thanks to commenter polderboy for catching my dumb typo on the opus number!] The Double Concerto, the last of Brahms's four brawny and beautiful concertos (there are, of course, two masterpieces for piano and one for violin, all among the most-performed works in the classical repertory), is a late work, and an intensely beautiful one, and also one that the composer would never have had to worry about being mistaken for anybody else's work. It really doesn't bear the hallmark of any other composer.

There would be the additional virtue that a certain number of readers would recognize the haunting main theme.

So I went shopping on YouTube, and ran smack into one of the things I wanted to discuss in the planned "follow-up" piece. Performers seem to feel the need to show that they know how big and important and serious Brahms's music is. So they make it elephantine and sweaty and heaving and generally rather repulsive. It's a tribute to the greatness of the music that its greatness shines through this persistent abuse. This borders on the miraculous.

There's no doubt that Brahms was a hard worker, and that he labored mightily over his work, not least with that unshakable awareness of the genius of Beethoven haunting him. (Beethoven was a hard worker too, but that doesn't seem to have been of much comfort to poor Brahms, or lessened his sense of struggle any.) The thing is, though, that when he finished, he'd done all the heavy lifting. You don't need to make the music important; the composer already took care of that, if you'll just find what makes the music happen and allow that to take place.

Part of the problem is that a lot of posters have passed over the Double Concerto's middle movement, or tacked it onto the end of the too-long-for-YouTube first movement. What I was able to find of just the gentle Andante was discouraging, and often you know you're in trouble from the very start -- that seemingly simple pair of rising-two-note motifs, the first by paired horns, the second by paired flutes. For those "perfect" intervals of the fourth, you really need pretty darned perfect tuning from the performers, without showing off the effort required to get it so.

Oh, I did find a clip of the 1982 video performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic with violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Mischa Maisky, but the clip wasn't of good technical qualty, and the performance -- in common with Lenny's later Brahms, and indeed most of the later Lenny -- stretches the music to the breaking point. I've come to think that he generally stayed just this side of that breaking point, and in the process did indeed discover beauties and depths that more casual renderings miss, but for such a performance to succeed I think it needs all elements working, and to me that means the sound has to be as good as the (quite decent) source material. I'm watching my laser-disk copy right now (coupled, like the DVD) with the Kremer-Bernstein video recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto), and I don't have much hesitation in recommending the performance, just not in mediocre-video-clip form.

Back I went to renew the search, and found a (barely) bearable clip, with a couple of adequate soloists and that pompous Brit-twit Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Hot dog, I thought, good enough! Hallelujah! (Sir Simon isn't untalented, but for the most part he's so infatuated with his media persona -- he was invented as that rarity, a child conducting prodigy, and has been given a free ride by the British-centered musical press ever since -- that I don't expect much from his performances. I've gotten surprised a few times, but not often enough to cause me to reverse my lack-of-benefit of the doubt.)

Anyway, the performance wasn't a total botch, and I thought the basic quality of the piece would come through, so I hastened to copy the embed code, and naturally it's "embedding disabled by request"! I got news for these chillun: Their performance ain't anywhere near good enough to be fretting about people stealing it.

By now I was starting to think "backup plan." Maybe the opening movement of the Horn Trio? (As you'll have noticed from the opening of the concerto movement, Brahms loved the French horn.) Then I stumbled on the genuinely adequate audio-only performance of the Andante of the Double Concerto A up top. If anything, it goes in the opposite direction from the one I'm complaining about: perhaps too relaxed, leaving the music a bit too much to its own devices, not quite finding its inner momentum, by which I don't mean speed, I mean the irresistible need for forward movement, what makes the music go, regardless of how fast or slow the tempo. (This performance is available on CD, but I should say that I haven't heard the outer movements of the concerto or the coupled performance of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.)

Next week: more on what makes Brahms such a special case, even as measured among the very greatest composers. (That's kind of a trick actually. Isn't it obvious that all of the greatest composers are special cases?)


Out of curiosity, I went back to the YT well to see what I might have turned up for the Horn Trio (or again, more formally, the Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano in E flat major, Op. 40), and after some discouraging shots found this rendering of the classic 1933 recording by Aubrey Brain, the horn-playing father of the most famous of all French-horn players, the tragically short-lived Dennis Brain; the great German violinist Adolf Busch; and the then-30-ish pianist Rudolf Serkin, a lifelong first-quality Brahmsian.


There are lots of good recordings of the Double Concerto, but also, for the reasons suggested above, a fair number of mediocre ones. For starters, for a mere $8.97 plus shipping and tax Amazon will sell youthe EMI version by the great violinist and cellist David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, coupled with the famous recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto that Oistrakh and Rostropovich made with their equally celebrated countryman the legendary pianist Sviatoslav Richter, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Even cheaper is a SONY Masterworks CD couplingof performances by a singularly notable Brahms performer, the late Isaac Stern (we'll be talking about this more) of both the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, with his frequent collaborator Leonard Rose, both ably backed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

There's also a fine Philips Trio setof all four Brahms concertos -- the two piano concertos played by Alfred Brendel (not my favorite recordings, but eminently respectable ones), the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto played by the great violinist Henryk Szeryng (with the lovely cellist Janos Starker) -- plus Brahms's Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures and the Haydn Variations, all played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink. With brand-new copies listed on for under $14, this three-CD set is a steal.

As for the Horn Trio, I just now noticed while perusing the "availabilities" that there's a Chandos recording, coupled with the Brahms Clarinet Trio, by the great Borodin Trio and friends, which I've somehow previously missed. I promptly ordered myself a copy. The Borodin Trio's sets of Brahms's three piano trios and three piano quartets (not to mention much of the rest of the piano trio repertory) are among the all-time great chamber music recordings. I'll report on the disc when I get it.

Meanwhile, we have another great bargain: an attractive Philips Duoof the Horn Trio performed by the great violinist Arthur Grumiaux, hornist Gyorgy Sebok, and pianist Francis Orval, along with the three piano trios by the Beaux Arts Trio (the fine early version with violinst Daniel Guilet), and the Clarinet Trio with clarinetist George Pieterson and Beaux Arts pianist and cellist Menahem Pressler and Bernard Greenhouse.


It's been awhile. Here's about where we left off.

[UPDATE: I think I've got the damned links fixed!]

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At 3:20 PM, Blogger polderboy said...

Ken, minor quibble, the Double Concerto in A minor, for violin and cello solos and orchestra is Op. 102. Op. 101 is the Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor.

But thoroughly enjoyed your post, looking forward to more.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Ohmygod, thanks for catching that idiotic typo! I'll correct it right away. (I was juggling so many numbers in my head at that point that I guess I wasn't paying much attention to what I was actually typing.)



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