Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Symphonies of Johannes Brahms

In our previous post, we gave you links to two great recent performances of the Brahms piano concertos featuring Hélène Grimaud. These concerti are both thoroughly established repertoire pieces and any pianist that can play them has done the equivalent of scaling Everest in terms of pianism. Now, we'll turn to the symphonies. 

Emphasizing the best of the latest performances of these works might extend back into the recordings of the 1990's. We always hope to hear more Brahms. Is it any wonder that these four symphonies rank as among the works most people would like to hear in a regular symphony concert? It used to be fashionable to double some parts in these works. It did produce a great big sound of course. But what of the intricacies within the homophonies (the chords sounded together) through the orchestra? Brahms created shades of emotional meaning and resonance by subtle shadings through changing chord progressions, what later became known as tone painting by people who came after him.

I've often thought of the four symphonies as the seasons of a year, the 1st being spring, the 2nd summer, the 3rd autumn and the 4th winter. Living in a place that actually has four distinct seasons enables me to feel the association more.

The First Symphony in c minor Op. 68 
(1876 Brahms is 43) “Spring”

Is there anything in music quite like the opening of this symphony? It's iconic Brahms. It starts from nothing and is a relentless march that one apparently joined in midstream, while it was going on; it was a march in progress before you got there. The music just starts and it doesn't stop. The drum beat relentless and like a heartbeat too and a vast theme rises above it. Then the primary thematic material is difficult, turbulent, combative with some kind of causal projection forward, thrusting, energetic and moody. Then the pastoral second theme and what follows, all according to brilliantly executed classical sonata-allegro form.

I've chosen a performance from 2014. It's lighter and more sweetly lyrical than most performances. The conductor keeps a slightly faster and lighter tempo through the first movement. It flows gracefully. There are obvious references to Beethoven of course and wisps of the theme that that started it all. Although the orchestral writing all has objective predecessors in the works of Beethoven and of the symphonists that followed him, Brahms is for his time a strikingly original voice. His lyrical gift is in its terseness. His lines are broad and long but they are each made up of smaller fragments concatenated together to form unique thematic forms. I just love, Brahms.

The second movement is prosaic and expansive by turns. It owes something to Robert Schumann (as did the first piano concerto). Played by a lighter complement, this music sounds really classical, as if indeed this indeed was Beethoven's tenth symphony. Inspiration though similar, Brahms is extending the power of string sound and giving it emotional edge. It's much better to be played at or near exact tempo because this music has delightful pulse which is often lost.

The third movement is urban Brahms. Almost as if capturing some of the spirit of the places he had been, where the music itself was composed, but certainly also venues suggested. It's all wise and whimsical, urbane and pretty and all that's in between and it ends quietly and without flourish.

The finale, also iconic Brahms, often associated with events connected with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Easter, here rendered splendidly. You can hear every line in the orchestral tapestry distinctly. The famous horn lines, all the rest. Who has any doubt that the composer fully intended every note to last and be played long into the future, as long as civilization lasts?

The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, violin solo, first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.

Published on Sep 8, 2014, here is
Johannes Brahms Symphony No 1 in c minor, Op 68

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
London Proms 2014

1. Un poco sostenuto - Allegro - Meno allegro
2. Andante sostenuto
3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
4. Adagio - Più andante - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio

The Second Symphony in D Major Op. 73 
(1877 Brahms is 44) “Summer”

The first movement, as with Beethoven's Eroica, is in three quarter time, it dances. Oh, how it dances! I've always loved this first movement so much. Again, it's pure iconic Brahms. Much suggestion of very warm pleasant weather yet this movement has those famous simulated summer weather events or whatever else your imagination comes up within its development section. The secondary theme the lilting waltz, the third theme begins after a climactic passage and becomes a rising question within a question figure leading to a jesting tumble, all of it original with Brahms. The version I chose, also from 2014 or soon before, repeats the exposition of the first movement, excellent!

The second movement presents one of the longer extenuating themes in classical symphonic music. Is it sad? Brahms thought so. He thought this whole symphony rather sad. Well, it isn't. It's a very strange and strong theme anyway. It's actually a song without words, an art song or even something operatic, the singing done by the low strings and horns. You imagine who with a gleaming baritone voice might issue forth over this glimmering soundscape. This movement contains some real emotional depths too because it is more than a mere aria. This is another full blown sonata -allegro form in . You figure out what the words might be. We each have a song to go with this. One thing for certain about it though, it's about real love as certain as I'm alive. Was it his expression for Clara? Well, it would have been in part and why not? She was his muse after all, let's face it. I sincerely doubt there was anything more to it. And some men have absolutely no idea how powerful an influence women can be to their very artistic drives and you know I really don't care to discuss it beyond that point.

The third movement always strikes me as picturesque of a romp in the country. One takes a coach drawn by some nice horses for a leisurely drive out into the country and perhaps encounters ... a hunt and perhaps a bit more too. I really like the way the conductor took advantage of all the lyrical possibilities.

The finale is a sonata in form and usually the fastest movement in all Brahms. Most groups attempt to play it at break neck speed. It may be overdone in cases. This group turns out a splendid pace. The lighter complement helps tremendously and you can hear all the parts easier. The woodwind playing throughout is splendid but in this movement we have a few real standout places. The conductor doesn't try to speed it up too much. His rendition is very clear.

This symphony is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

Published on Oct 24, 2014, here is
Johannes Brahms Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 73 

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann, conductor

1. Allegro non troppo
2. Adagio non troppo
3. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
4. Allegro con spirito

We have another important performance for your consideration here. This one is by Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Carlos Kleiber from 1991

The Third Symphony in F Major Op. 90 
(1883 Brahms is 50) “Autumn”

This lovely symphony has an opening movement also in three quarter time, that will be fully utilized to dance to, especially in the development. It begins with another iconic Brahms titanic statement of surpassing grandeur as if looking over some vast distance or up into some surpassing alpine vastness. Then there are also references to harvesting, working, family gatherings, the moon itself. This is what romantic symphony music is supposed to do; fire one's imagination. The composer wrote the music, now you supply the story, in your mind. The whole thing is a wonderfully wrought purposeful statement in full accordance with classical sonata-allegro form going back to the first Vienna school masters. There is in much of Brahms threads of not only having experienced great love and affection but also the great longing for it. It's what makes the music as gripping and universal as it has become.

The second movement prosaically walks forth, introduced through the woodwinds, it is soon enlarged, embroidered, all told a kind of tender nobility pervades this music. I have been in the places most likely to imagine such strains; out in the country where I have actually heard this music in my mind, as I have known it for most of my life. It's always a great pleasure to hear it again. It's about life itself somehow, the great and the common, the sublime and the ordinary, the themes posing the endless questions that search beyond present time, sometimes reflecting back into the past and at others just as clearly asking to know the great future far beyond our own time. Brahms was and is absolutely lovely.

The third movement is of course the famous sad waltz, a lament for being alone, but of course it could have as many other meanings as well. This performance just plays the music without any extra sadness and emphasizes the lush chord voicings among the woodwinds, a nice little country dance to contrast with the larger sadder waltz. The chosen version here plays the end of this with great kindness.

The finale is a moody sonata with a few abrupt changes of dynamics and phrasing, a familiar jagged Brahmsian rhythm gives way to an urbane phrase over pizzicato, both Brahms' signature ideas which will influence others who follow him whether they were aware of them or not. The development section pushes the elements to their highest points from which the form naturally carries one home, except in this case there is a coda that extends the symphony producing a profound timeless effect.

We recall that all the orchestral phrasing and voicing is more or less familiar to our ears through their literal steals for use in movie scores, especially for the first half of the 20th century, before the culture and the music died. Changed? No, it died. We have since the end of the 1940's exchanged an adult culture which was serious in every way possible and gave each life a meaning and a dignity within it, for an adolescent or possibly even a savage culture (if one can even call it that). By the time I was a young child and became familiar with classical music, I was strongly advised that it was at that time and henceforth likely to be only “a museum art form” and every means was sought to capture my attention elsewhere.

At his time, it was apparently Brahms intention to pick up where the real classicists had left off and continue their work; music for its own sake in exactly the same sense as virtue is anything that can't help but be good. His symphonies were and are direct descendants of the late Beethoven and Schubert symphonies as well as deriving much from those of Schumann and Mendelssohn. His style perfectly cements romanticism into classical forms and though we consider him before a few of his successors, it's clear that many were on the same path Brahms was on; returning to classical forms while expressing the most romantic passions; real emotions, though their inspiration often came from literature or in the cases of Beethoven and Brahms, and later Bartók, from mere contact with nature. 

These symphonic works would take nationalistic and heroic forms too. In this regard, we would certainly have no difficulty describing Brahms' achievement as in part nationalistic and in particular expressive of German nationalism. During Brahms' lifetime Germany became a unified country. Though it is known that Brahms harboured some patriotic feeling concerning a unified Germany, he nevertheless preferred living in the Austria-Hungarian empire and in Vienna and so it is with Brahms that the “second Vienna school” of composition begins.

This symphony is scored for for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

And so, published on May 25, 2012, here is
Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F Major Op. 90 

the Orchestra of the University of Music FRANZ LISZT Weimar
in the Neue Weimarhalle on May 10th. [2012]
Conductor: Professor Nicolás Pasquet

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante
3. Poco allegretto
4. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto

The Fourth Symphony in e minor Op. 98 
(1884 Brahms is 51) “Winter”

This symphony begins with one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies in all symphonic literature. The impression is certainly cool to cold, and darker, all impressively constructed as usual. Monumental and immortal by design, Brahms foreshadows the eerie atonality to come in his occasional quite spooky flights into some other obscurely chosen tonal direction. You hear places where the sun breaks out, the brightest days are often in winter, but there is the pervading reality. This is a stunning movement.

The second movement is another monumental piece of tremendous gravitas as it glides and ambles by turns. There are melodic lines of surpassing beauty in this movement. The third is a big triumphant march like dance with a beautiful contrasting bucolic trio.

The last movement is a Passacaglia in form, one of the most famous and most tragic sounding in all music. There is no happy ending here.

The symphony is scored for two flutes (one doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle (third movement only), and strings.

This would seem to be the most often played of the Brahms symphonies based on the number of recordings available on YouTube. I chose a performance from 2001 in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Uploaded on Jan 7, 2012, here is  
Johannes Brahms Symphony #4 in e minor Op.98 

The Gustav Mahler [Youth Orchestra] Jugendorchester (GMJO) 
Luzern (Lucerne), die Schweiz (Suisse) [Switzerland]
Conducted by Mariss Jansons.

1. Allegro non troppo
2. Andante moderato
3. Allegro giocoso
4. Allegro energico e passionato

If that wasn't perfect, and it was, well, you might consider this performance from 2014, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink, conductor
from the London Proms [Albert Hall] London.


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