Thursday, February 15, 2007

Issues with Brahms

Symphony No. 3, "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" – London Philharmonic/Marin Alsop (Naxos 8.557430)

Symphony No. 4 (with Schoenberg: Variations for orchestra, Op. 31) – Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi 901884)

Piano Concerto No. 1 – Krystian Zimerman (piano), Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle (Deutsche Grammophon B0006203)

Piano Concerto No. 2, "Four Piano Pieces," Op. 119 – Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Dallas Symphony/Andrew Litton (Hyperion 67550)

I approach a new Brahms recording much as (according to Samuel Johnson) one approaches a second marriage: Hope triumphs over experience – or at least hopes to.

Brahms eludes most performers today. They grasp his content, perhaps too well, playing up structural and expressive details at the expense of phrasing and rhythmic pulse. Romantic expression is a second or third language to most living musicians, and their fluency does not extend to Brahms’ uniquely introspective and internally pressurized romanticism.

Modern interpreters typically emphasize the classicist in Brahms, rendering the music’s structure in sharp relief and its rhythms crisply. But then along comes a reminder that Brahms isn’t Haydn, or even Beethoven. The listener senses the moment of realization – "Oh wait, this is romantic" – followed by a sudden downshift in volume or tempo or an extra-generous application of rubato or vibrato.

The oh-waits accumulate, continuity is lost, and soon the performance lives down to George Bernard Shaw’s sour view of Brahms’ music as "a string of incomplete dance and ballad tunes, following one another with no more organic coherence than the succession of passing images reflected in a shop window . . ."

The young Shaw (there reviewing the Fourth Symphony in 1890) delighted in belittling Brahms, and later apologized for it. But his shop-window simile perfectly describes what happens in a performance that fails to reconcile Brahms’ classicism with his romanticism – or, if you like, his percolating intellect with his simmering emotional state.

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A handful of artists performed Brahms in the composer’s presence, and lived long enough to make listenable recordings. The most prominent was the conductor Felix Weingartner, whose 1938-40 cycle of the four symphonies and "Academic Festival" Overture with the London Symphony and London Philharmonic (ASV Living Era 2009, two discs) is a brisk, brawny, no-nonsense purgative to the swooning Brahms so often heard today.

Kent Nagano’s new disc of the Brahms Fourth, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, recalls Weingartner’s directness and muscularity, as well as the old master’s generally close adherence to the composer's instructions. Nagano’s tempos are slightly broader; his ear plus a modern recording enlarge the palette of colors and enrich sonorities, especially among lower strings and horns.

Nagano pairs the Brahms with a dynamic, explosively volatile account of Schoenberg’s Variations, Op. 31, music on the other side of a divide in tonality and perhaps one of intent. (Brahms can be didactic, but isn’t obviously bent upon it.) Hearing the two pieces in succession, though, it’s clear that Schoenberg was building, both structurally and expressively, on foundations laid by Brahms.

Marin Alsop continues her Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic in solid, middle-of-the-classical/romantic-road readings of the Third Symphony and "Haydn Variations." A bewilderingly variable First Symphony and sluggish Second mercifully behind her, Alsop sounds more fully engaged and secure in interpretive direction here. Sound quality is somewhat muddy; lapses in ensemble and split-second-late entries suggest the musicians couldn’t hear one another properly in the recording venue, London’s Blackheath Concert Hall.

Krystian Zimerman’s recent disc of the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic is an exemplar of latter-day high-romantic Brahms. These musicians treat this concerto about as unclassically as it could stand to be treated – hearing their rhapsodic first movement, "sonata form" is not a phrase that springs to mind – but their combination of expressive probing and sensuality proves persuasive, at times irresistible.

Even those with little patience for this approach will find themselves drawn into Zimerman’s sound world. No pianist produces more variety of tone (his bell-like tone is unique) and gradiants of touch and volume. Rattle is likewise intent on immersing the listener in sonority, which the Berlin Phil provides in abundance. The weight and clarity of orchestral sound – especially string sound – in this recording is extraordinary.

(The Rattle and Nagano discs remind us that the Berlin Philharmonie, the house that Karajan built, is still his sound box. Its plush bass response and spacious projection of high frequency tone are givens, regardless of the orchestra or conductor performing in the hall. In a previous post, "The key instrument" [January archive], I commented on performance spaces as musical instruments; here's a classic case.)

Marc-André Hamelin, the Canadian-American virtuoso, might be expected to deliver high-romantic Brahms, and so he does in the "Four Piano Pieces," Op. 119, that fill out his new disc of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony.

Hamelin and Litton – co-directors, in effect, of a symphony for piano and orchestra – are unindulgent interpreters, trusting this music to express itself without extra dollops of performer temperament, letting its rhetorical scope and natural momentum drive their performance. This is straightforwardly "Olympian" Brahms whose coloristic and dynamic byways do not slow or divert the journey.

Cost is an issue with import labels such as Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion. Does the performance warrant spending $2 to $5 more than you would for a full-price domestic release? In Nagano's case, yes – but for the Schoenberg more than the Brahms. In Hamelin's case, not unless you're a hardcore fan. (He has many.)

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The Brahms symphony discography has not seen a compelling addition since 1992, when Deutsche Grammophon released Claudio Abbado’s cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic. The complete set, also including Brahms’ short vocal-orchestral works, is available as an import at ridiculous cost; single discs are merely full-price. [Addendum: Musical Heritage Society offers the set at mid-price; as with most book or record clubs, membership comes with automatic product shipments and deadlines for declining them.]

Among complete sets, the best value for performance, recording and price is the 1971-72 cycle by Kurt Sanderling and the Staatskapelle Dresden (RCA Classics 74321303672, three discs). The set, including the "Tragic" Overture and "Haydn Variations" with the symphonies, sells for about $15.

Most every prominent pianist of the past three generations has had one or more goes at the Brahms concertos. Among the most durable accounts of the First are those by Arthur Rubinstein with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA Victor 66378), Clifford Curzon with George Szell and the London Symphony (Decca 466 376), Maurizio Pollini with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 447 041), and Leif Ove Andsnes with Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony (EMI Classics 56583).

Among recordings of the Second Concerto, standouts include Wilhelm Backhaus with Böhm and the Vienna Phil, paired with one of the definitive readings of Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 (Decca 448 600), and Sviatoslav Richter’s uniquely ruminative version with Erich Leinsdorf and the Chicago Symphony (RCA Victor 60860).

Among sets pairing the two concertos, best options are Emil Gilels with Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Phil (DG 447 446, two discs), Stephen Hough with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony (Virgin Classics 61412, two discs), and – my pick and many others’ – Leon Fleisher with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical 63225, two discs).

Some pre-stereo Brahms worth owning: Guido Cantelli’s 1955 account of the Third Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra, coupled with a 1951 recording of Mendelssohn’s "Italian" Symphony (Testament 1173); Wilhelm Furtwängler’s manic-romantic (romanic?) interpretation of the Fourth Symphony, from a 1948 concert with the Berlin Phil (Classica d’Oro 1007); and Edwin Fischer in the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Furtwängler and the Berliners, vintage 1942 (Testament 1170). Also, if and when it's reissued, Arturo Toscanini's BBC Symphony recording of the Fourth Symphony from 1935 – more lyrical and rhythmically flexible than his later NBC Symphony version on RCA Victor.

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Recommended discs of the Brahms symphonies and piano concertos:

* Symphonies Nos. 1-4, "Variations on a Theme of Haydn," "Tragic" Overture – Staatskapelle Dresden/Kurt Sanderling (RCA Classics 74321303672, three discs).

* Symphony No. 1, "Gesang der Parzen" – Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado (DG 431 790).

* Symphony No. 2, "Alto Rhapsody" – Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado (DG 427 643).

* Symphony No. 3 (with Schubert: Symphony No. 5; Mendelssohn: "Hebrides" Overture) – Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner (RCA Victor 61793) [an ArkivCD available from ArkivMusic,]

* Symphony No. 4 – Vienna Philharmonic/Carlos Kleiber (DG 457 706).

* Piano concertos Nos. 1-2, "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel," waltzes, Op. 39 – Leon Fleisher (piano), Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell (Sony Classical 63225, two discs).