Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Music of the Great Composers - Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Born six years after the death of Beethoven, five years after the premature death of Schubert, 23 years younger than Chopin or Schumann, one could never have imagined that Brahms was ever young or ever a child. There was never anything remotely childlike or young about him. He was a naturally gifted musician with remarkable hearing, memory, reasonable pianistic capabilities owing to large hands. His compositions are monumental and prosaic by turns, but never impersonal. In fact Brahms is among the most deeply personal of all composers; he either grabs you unforgettably or he doesn't impress at all because for those who don't see him, like him or appreciate his contributions, they seem to prefer that music itself perform some more socially mundane function.

I count myself among those who have always liked Brahms, in fact I have said to any and all who ever asked, “who's your favourite composer,” it would certainly be Brahms. Why? Because Brahms is suitably deep for one thing. If you're anything like me and have little to do with pop music or anything that's here today and gone tomorrow, then you'll appreciate that some music is like landmarks; when you get to them, you know you've seen something or been somewhere. One cannot easily explain what it is about certain pieces by Brahms that are indelible and unforgeable. And I don't know that I have heard all of it; the over 200 art songs he wrote are largely a mystery to me.

I decided that a documentary would perhaps fill out more details and after viewing a few of them, I chose this one: Whole Notes - JOHANNES BRAHMS

It's true, I have had at various times had a keen personal identification with Brahms. Now, it seems incredible to me, I have attained an age beyond that of Beethoven and Brahms and perhaps soon of Bach as well. What I could say is that were one serious about music to the exclusion of everything else in the world, one would be hard pressed to beat sole devotion to the pianistic works of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I don't happen to play much Brahms. I'd rather hear others play him and I look for that fidelity to intention, precision and conviction that the music demands.

One aspect that marks Brahms apart from any that came before him and those who would follow him is that within his work are as many deep searching probably ineffable questions concerning man and nature, these quests often take the music higher and higher into realms that could be the abode of ... gods and angels? One's imagination is apt to draw castles in the sky above impossible grandeur in some bigger than life natural setting like Yosemite or Berchtesgaden.

We have said before that Romanticism as an artistic movement derived from fiction but was not about fiction but about expressing real emotions. In Brahms these emotions are apt to be given immortal status, even where the intent is to preserve some catchy idea from gypsy or Hungarian sources. We also know Brahms liked to take short trips and why not settle in Vienna if one could get down to Hungary or Italy once in a while as Brahms did.

Over the next few months, we will be getting into the sparse but rich music of Brahms. We're going to try and find the best current performances of his music. I think to kick it off, we'll have to start with this performance of Brahms' first piano concerto.

Here it is played by a pianist who claims that Brahms wrote the piece for her. You'd have to think that if you ever intend to make Brahms your own.

Piano Concerto #1 in d minor Op. 15
Hélène Grimaud piano,
the Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra 
of Baden-Baden and Freiburg
Michael Gielen, conducting.

Brahms, age 20 in 1853
Well then, for the real lovers of Brahms out there, here the same pianist plays (what a performance!): 

Piano Concerto #2 in B flat Op. 83
Hélène Grimaud piano,  
NHK Symphony Orchestra 
David Zinman, conducting.


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