Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Brahms: The Podcast

It’s an all-Brahms program with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend – you could call it 'Brahms Cubed' – or as Stuart Malina referred to it in our podcast chat, “Brahms, Brahms and Quasi-Brahms.” He’ll conduct the orchestra in the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor and, joined by concertmaster Odin Rathnam, celebrating his 20th season with the orchestra, the Violin Concerto in D Major.

The program opens with the world premiere of… not a newly discovered work by Brahms but a “fan-fare” composed by Brahms fan Stuart Malina, a concert-opener that is based on themes from another one of Brahms’ symphonies, the 4th, one Stuart says might be his favorite if he had to choose (the standard response, justifiably, to the question “which is your favorite Brahms Symphony?” is to say “the one I’m conducting at the moment”).

Listen to the podcast here.

And also check out the posts I’ve written about the Violin Concerto (check back later, it's still TBA at the moment), the Symphony (historical background to the question “Why did it take Brahms so long to compose his 1st Symphony?”) and a bit of a conversation Brahms had about his compositional ideas with a protégé of his during the summer he (finally) completed the Symphony No. 1.

The performances are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg – and the pre-concert talks will be given an hour before each performance by Stuart Malina (as if he didn’t have enough to deal with before a concert).

- Dick Strawser

Brahms' Violin Concerto: Behind the Music

The May Concert of the Harrisburg Symphony is called "Brahms Brahms Brahms" and for obvious reasons. One of the “Brahms Cubed” pieces at this weekend’s all-Brahms concert is one of the greatest violin concertos in the repertoire, if not “greatest concertos, period.” Stuart Malina conducts the program which includes a new work of his own, a "Brahms Fan-Fare" - you can listen to our podcast here - as well as Brahms' 1st Symphony and the Violin Concerto with Odin Rathnam, celebrating his 20th Season as the orchestra's concertmaster and part of Harrisburg's musical scene.

Those performances are this weekend at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg - Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm. Stuart Malina will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each concert.

In this post, I’ve embedded three video clips courtesy of YouTube, and while you might quibble about my choices, I decided to go with three great masters of the past for any number of reasons: Henryk Szeryng in the first movement (with Leinsdorf conducting the Czech Philharmonic in 1971), Jascha Heifetz in the slow momevent (with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, recorded for RCA in 1955 – alas, no video) and David Oistrakh in the finale (with Rudolf Schwarz – the conductor’s rather odd-looking technique is partly the result of injuries sustained while interred at Auschwitz under the Nazis) – and the BBC Symphony, in 1958).

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1st Movement: Henryk Szeryng w/Leinsdorf, Czech Phil (1971)

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And it’s appropriate that both the Violin Concerto and the Symphony end up on this program together. The C Minor Symphony is this great, expansive, majesterial and yet very complex work and the Violin Concerto is almost its complete opposite – gentle rather than dramatic in its first movement, even more lyrical and fantastical in the slow movement, with an energetic dance-like, unbuttoned finale where the symphony ends with the triumphant resolution of the first movement’s drama. So in this sense, they make a very good contrasting pair of masterpieces, something difficult to do on an all-one-composer program.

But yet only two years separate the completion of the 1st Symphony and the composing of the Violin Concerto.

Considering it took Brahms at least 22 years to produce his first symphony (and about 14 years of that spent working on what eventually became the 1st Symphony) – more an issue of self-reliance and the idea of writing a symphony after Beethoven – he felt confident enough to write the 2nd Symphony the next summer and then the Violin Concerto the summer after that.

When people make those ubiquitous lists, the one for Great Violin Concertos – modern culture is all about box-office – usually mentions “The Four Top Violin Concertos.” While it’s difficult to put them in a specific order, it’s generally agreed Beethoven and Brahms are the first two while Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky are the second two. Beyond that, you're on your own.

Interestingly, each of those composers only wrote one violin concerto (the fact that three of them are in D Major may be coincidental but it’s a very violin-friendly key) so it’s good they got it right the first time. If you enjoy playing “What If,” imagine a second concerto by any of them…!

The pairing of Beethoven’s and Brahms’ Violin Concerto at the top of this list, incidentally, has a common denominator in the name of Joseph Joachim. He was the violinist Brahms composed his concerto for, and he was the violinist who gave it its first performances. What might be overlooked is the role Joachim had in bringing the Beethoven concerto into the repertoire.

Without going too far off-topic, let’s just say that after its premiere, Beethoven’s concerto – atypical of the period in its length and symphonic scope as well as its lack of sheer virtuosity when virtuosity was often the reason for a concerto’s existence – was rarely played and probably, generally, unknown, unlike today. Between 1806 and 1844, it was almost completely forgotten until Felix Mendelssohn conducted it in London with Joseph Joachim as the soloist. Joachim was 12, at the time.

Brahms was 14 when he first heard Joachim (two years older) play the Beethoven concerto in Hamburg, though they didn’t meet until almost six years later. By that time, Joachim was professor of violin in Leipzig (since he was 17) at the school Mendelssohn had founded. There was a visit from an old school-friend, Eduard Remenyi (see the photo, right, of Remenyi & Brahms) – like Joachim, Hungarian-born – who brought with him his shy young accompanist, a short fellow with long blonde hair and blue eyes named Johannes Brahms who’d turned 20 a few weeks earlier. When he played some of his pieces for Joachim – a number of works that were never published but also two of his piano sonatas – Brahms made a sufficient impression on Joachim that he suggested he should go meet Robert Schumann.

The rest, as they say, is history – and you can read more about that aspect of Brahms’ life in my post about his 1st Symphony.

Brahms and Joachim became close friends and frequent musical collaborators – united also in their concern for Clara Schumann after her husband’s attempted suicide. Brahms would often send his friends – especially Clara and Joachim – new pieces to get their reactions, a kind of artistic advisory board. So it was with some interest that Joachim – some 24 years later – received a note from Brahms about “a few violin passages” he would soon be sending him for advice.

It turned out to be a new concerto and they were soon busily collaborating by post as it gestated from “a few passages” to a full-blown four movement work. At times, Joachim rewrote passages to better suit a virtuoso for better effect as well as more technical matters pertaining to bowings and phrasing. Joachim was, after all, one of the finest violinists of the day and Brahms, ever since his early days, was more comfortable writing for the piano than anything else.

At times, Brahms – headstrong as ever – adopted what Joachim suggested or just as likely ignored it, sometimes utilizing it to create a third version. They discussed the age-old question of balancing a single violin against an orchestra of eighty musicians. Brahms even left Joachim the honor of composing his own cadenza for the first movement – something in Mozart’s day would’ve been improvised but which, more and more, composers were expected to take more control over, themselves.

Joachim wanted the concerto ready to premiere in Leipzig on New Year’s Day the next year (1879) but Brahms wrote to him that he was having trouble with the two middle movements – a slow movement and a scherzo – which went “bust – naturally they were the best ones! I’m writing a wretched adagio instead.”

Whatever happened to the original slow movement, the scherzo ended up later becoming part of the four-movement 2nd Piano Concerto. The new slow movement could hardly be considered “wretched,” but such was Brahms often self-deprecating sense of humor.

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2nd Movement: Jascha Heifetz with Fritz Reiner & the Chicago Symphony (1955)

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Having completed two symphonies, now, and feeling very self-assured as a result of having overcome the long gestation of the first symphony – as well as his first string quartet and what eventually became his third piano quartet (all three in C Minor, all being worked on over the same incredibly long stretch of time) – Brahms didn’t seem to be intimidated by writing such a large scale concerto. Paganini and Spohr might have been more typical of the day and the virtuosic tradition taken up by Liszt was probably what most music-lovers expected. The Mendelssohn concerto was shoulders above the standard repertoire of the day.

But there was Beethoven – and Joachim had been the champion who brought it back to life. It was by no means a typical violin concerto, one of symphonic scope – and it was Brahms’ principal model. Ironically, when he composed his first symphony, it was Beethoven's model he was trying to live up to: this time, he seemed to have no fear of giants treading behind him.

Still, in an age used to hearing a showcase for the soloist “accompanied” (or “supported”) by the orchestra – for instance, even in Chopin’s E Minor Piano Concerto, the orchestra is practically superfluous – a “symphonic concerto” where the soloist and the orchestra were on an equal footing was something unexpected and therefore suspect.

Pressured by Joachim and by other friends to complete the work in time, Brahms was often ill-mannered and bad-tempered. He reluctantly agreed to attend a special celebration with his hometown orchestra, the Hamburg Philharmonic – which, after all, had twice turned him down to be their full-time conductor – relenting in the end because Clara Schumann played a Mozart concerto and Joachim was the concertmaster for Brahms when he conducted his new 2nd Symphony.

With the scheduled premiere rapidly approaching, Joachim had to deal with a flurry of last-minute revisions and Brahms was so tense on the podium that, when it came time to perform it in Vienna two weeks later, he gladly gave the conducting responsibilities over to Joseph Hellmesberger (who may be the originator of the quip this was not a concerto for the violin but one “against” the violin).

The response in Leipzig was “no worse than cool” but Vienna loved it – the audience even applauded Joachim’s cadenza right on into the conclusion of the first movement, and uncharacteristically this actually pleased Brahms.

For the third movement, Brahms honored his friend’s Hungarian heritage by writing him an all-out Hungarian Dance – or rather, a dashing finale “in the Hungarian Style.” As a young man accompanying Remenyi, he had learned the gypsy style and turned it to commercial success with a series of Hungarian Dances which proved immensely popular and incredibly lucrative. He had used these “gypsy finales” – they are not, in fact, based on folk music – before, most notably in the 1st Piano Quartet, and though the ethnic exuberance may have been toned down a bit in the concerto, it nonetheless pays tribute to Joachim’s own popular Violin Concerto nicknamed the “Hungarian Concerto” for its gypsy finale.

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3rd Movement: David Oistrakh with Rudolf Schwarz and the BBC Symphony (1958)

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Though Vienna enjoyed the new concerto – as Brahms wrote to a friend, “Publikus would not cease its noise” – it wasn’t so well received elsewhere, which may seem odd to us, today. In Berlin, critics wondered why their musicians had to play such “trash” and another famous virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, said of it “I don’t deny that it’s fairly good music but does anyone imagine… I’m going to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the Adagio?”

And so, having produced two symphonies, now, and a violin concerto in the span of three years, Brahms took a step back, taking more time before letting a new piece go, concerned about those details that concerned him, conscious of the idea that immortality could just as easily mean “when an immortal dies, people will keep on for 50,000 years and more, talking idiotically and badly about him,” whether he felt he had created a work he felt exhibited his talent at its best.

It seems the new-found self-reliance Brahms discovered from completing the 1st Symphony was short-lived.

After his closest friends found it difficult to approve of his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto (another work composed specifically with Joachim in mind), Brahms began to compose less – or rather, to complete and publish less. In typical Brahmsian fashion, considering he’d told young composers one of the most important tools of the trade was a good wastebasket, he disposed of a large amount of sketches – burned them, actually – including but not limited to a second violin concerto, a second double concerto, enough of a fifth symphony he could play it through for some friends, and possibly ideas for a sixth as well.

And all that, between 1887, the year of the Double Concerto, only eleven years after completing 22 years of work on a symphony, and 1892, the year of that haunting photograph (see above), the year he'd come out of 'retirement' to compose several works for clarinet, inspired by the playing of Richard Mühlfeld.

One can only imagine...

- Dick Strawser

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You can read more about Brahms and his relationship with Joseph Joachim in this post about the Double Concerto, "A Testimony to a Friendship."