Johannes Brahms was, to put it mildly, one of the more thoughtful composers in the history of Western music, as evidenced by the fact that, although he is known to have been working on a symphony in 1854 (never finished, although parts did find their way to the Concerto for Piano in D Minor and the Deutsches Requiem, his first, the C Minor, was not published until 1877, when he was forty-four. He, as well as others, considered himself the heir of Beethoven, but you will not find that kind of defiant heroism in Brahms’ music — that was not his temperament, nor, I think the temper of his time.
I have known and loved Brahms’ First Symphony for years — for me, it is one of the greatest of the masterpieces of the Western repertoire. It is everything that is Brahms at his best: dignity, passion, an elegiac mood broken by flashes of playfulness, and some of the most beautiful music ever written riding a long, architectural line that carries the listener headlong through breathtaking turns of phrase.
I have also long been partial to Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra. By no means considered one of the “world’s greatest,” under Abravanel it was an adventurous ensemble, and in the 1960s and 70s issued a string of recordings of intelligent and sensitive interpretations of works that were otherwise often hard to find (I still treasure my vinyl recording of Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi, a highly underrated piece of music).
Nevertheless, I’m not in complete agreement with Abravanel on this one — I prefer a more majestic tempo in the opening, and I feel that he rushes it, but the music can stand it. (The perfect Brahms First happened one night here in Chicago, with the Chicago Symphony under the baton of Erwin Hoffman, Acting Music Director. That was the one where I almost fell out of the gallery applauding. Don’t tell me classical music buffs are sticks-in-the-mud — I wasn’t the only one screaming.) However, much as I feel Abravanel undercuts the tragic dimension of the opening, he does catch the nuances of the middle two movements, highlighting the lyricism and bringing out the sweetness of the music. And he does the final movement proud: suddenly, there is momentum, there is tension, and there is Brahms’ own brand of heroism, leading up to a finale that is, in its own way, as triumphal as anything Beethoven ever penned.
The Haydn Variations is a new one for me — I’ve heard them, but never managed to get it into my music library. The theme is the so-called St. Anthony Chorale, which Brahms found in a divertimento attributed to Haydn. Abravanel takes a low-key approach, stating the theme very gently, and then building texture and color as the variations progress. The work is a case study in Brahms: intricate, inventive, flashing from intimacy to that bigness that is a hallmark of the composer. It’s evident from this piece that Brahms thought in symphonic terms, no matter what. It’s also evident that, like many composers, he had no compunctions about using and re-using thematic material (in this case, check out the Academic Festival Overture, if I remember correctly).
An interesting contrast is the treatment of the two-piano version of the Haydn Variations by Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman. I’m not sure that I love it all that much, but I can’t tell whether it’s the two-piano format or the interpretation: this rendering seems to lose some of the clarity that is a characteristic of Brahms’ writing. The dynamics also seem somehow a little flat, although the pianists come close to redeeming themselves in the final Andante, but this is not full-blown, no-holds-barred Brahms, who was as capable of thunder and lightning as any other nineteenth-century composer, and more so than most.
The Sonata in F Minor is another case of déjà vu: I’ve heard this song before, and it was, indeed, Brahms who wrote it. This is the Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 in a different form. In either version, it is a complex piece of music, difficult on several levels. Even in the two piano version, one can hear the orchestra hovering in the background, and one can only wonder if perhaps this might not have been a stellar third piano concerto. The potential of the piece is perhaps not always realized by Ax and Bronfman, although they seem to be fully aware of the orchestral feel of the work — lots of color, and full attention to that Brahmsian bigness. (And frankly, considering that there are only two of them, it’s hard to know how far they could go with this.) It is certainly a demanding work for performers, no less than for listeners, but it is, indeed, pure Brahms. (By the way, if you can find a good recording, I do heartily recommend the Piano Quintet — it’s simply astonishing that so much music can come out of five instruments.)
In spite of my reservations, however, the Ax/Bronfman disc is a good slice of Brahms’ writing for the piano. The Abravanel/Utah disc is a Double Disc, CD and DVD, and includes a video of the complete performance in surround sound, along with a biography of Brahms, a behind-the-scenes segment, and two memorials to Abravanel. If, like me, you spend your time in the audience of a symphony concert watching the tympanist (who is the only one moving around at all), the DVD portion is neither a plus nor a minus, although it is nice to have the record of Abravanel and his contribution to classical music. The symphony, on the other hand, is certainly worth the price of admission.
(Silverline Classics [originally issued by Vanguard], 2004)
(Sony BMG Musical Entertainment, 2005)