When it comes to the core classical composers, Brahms towers above the others when it comes to my personal enjoyment. It would be difficult to argue that he has the musical intellect of Beethoven, or even the voluminous output of Mozart, but several of his best works are extremely satisfying and speak to me on a personal level. I consequently admire Brahms a great deal, and so intend to take this little survey of my favorite works as an appendix to last week's discussion. Most of his output consists of German songs or choral works, and I have never found myself enjoying those. I suppose I am biased toward the 15th century when it comes to songs, so favor the purely instrumental classical genres. The truth is that I dislike the sound of the operatic voice.
Brahms' early work is rather uneven in my opinion, and as is so often stated, it seems clear he wrestled with the legacy of Beethoven for a long time. It wasn't until the age of 43 that he wrote his First Symphony, marking a clear point after which his work is definitively his own. This late date also gives me hope for myself, as well as a closer identification with Brahms, because I have been wrestling with so much of history for so many years. Perhaps in my 40s, I can finally write something of real value. Anyway, the First Symphony is the first of Brahms' works which I thoroughly enjoy, although some of the earlier works certainly have their merits, particularly the string sextets & quartets. While the former are perhaps too stereotypically Romantic, the latter are rather acerbic. That typically appeals to me, and they do have their intriguing sections, but Brahms' later work in that mold is so much stronger and richer in sonority that it is hard to be excited by the quartets (for which I will nonetheless recommend the Alban Berg Quartet recording). The Haydn Variations are also enjoyable, and justifiably popular for a light piece.
When it comes to the symphonies, the First is rather self-conscious, but still compelling in its transfiguration of previous examples and its boldly personal statement. I already like it better than any of Beethoven's symphonies, and welcome the transformation in the finale. The Second is so cheerful... it is one of the few pieces which never fails to brighten my mood, an irony coming from a supposedly dour composer. (The other music I find similarly bright is Byrd's keyboard music.) The truth is that Brahms is always rather uplifting for me, but perhaps that's a reflection on my own disposition. With the Third & Fourth symphonies, there are some rather lofty syntheses, making for works which consistently thrill me and make hearing subsequent symphonic efforts difficult. The heroism of the Third, with its thematic interrelations and telescoping development is quite visceral for me. Meanwhile, the Fourth has been an instant and steady favorite since childhood. While I've seen it described as dark & brooding, I don't react that way. Rather, it seems like a romping good time with a touch of the sardonic. I guess I tend to feel that way myself, and the closing chaconne always has a feel-good defiance about it. The two overtures are also good music, if not something I seek out. When it comes to performance, I definitely prefer Haitink's recent cycle with the BSO. I was again instantly attracted to it, and have it as my "reference" set. While I've seen several people call it dull, I don't agree; it is mock drama and overemphasized climaxes which are dull. That is an all too common defect in Brahms performances, where limpid phrasing which acknowledges the metrical ambiguities is absolutely essential.
Between the Second & Third Symphonies Brahms seems to have reached another level of accomplishment, and this is perhaps consummated in the Second Piano Concerto. It is easily my favorite Romantic concerto, and another lifelong favorite. The different scorings and the forceful yet non-histrionic piano part are truly sublime. My favorite performance, again an easy choice, is more obscure: Hough & the BBC SO on Virgin, which has disappeared from print but is worth seeking out. The First Piano Concerto is rather a mess, and not very compelling for me. The Violin Concerto has a wonderful opening movement, but the latter two are a bit uninspired. Still, the orchestral syncopations of the opening can be hair-raising, and I enjoy the work. I don't really have a favorite recording, although I'll put in a word for the recent Kremer/Harnoncourt on Teldec (with the Enescu cadenza), which definitely has its merits. The later Double Concerto was a favorite for some years, but my enthusiasm has cooled a bit. Nonetheless, it is still an enjoyable work.
Also between the Second & Third Symphonies, Brahms wrote the Piano Trio No. 2 and the String Quintet No. 1. These are both key works, and not to be missed. The Piano Trio No. 2 is easily among his best works, and probably his best in the genre. The Piano Trio No. 3 is of similar merit, while the 1889 rewrite of the Piano Trio No. 1 also makes for an intriguing & distinctive work. I confess that I don't generally enjoy the trio format, but these pieces are simply too good and too illustrative of Brahms' output to pass by. The Horn Trio also has its strengths, although I continue to find the Clarinet Trio too stiff. One of the Beaux Arts Trio recordings is to be preferred, although again I have no clear choice. The String Quintet No. 1 is rather unbalanced formally, but each movement is extremely effective on its own. Perhaps more importantly, it leads to the String Quintet No. 2 which is probably my favorite Brahms work, and perhaps even my favorite "classical" composition. For a pairing of the quintets, the recent Juilliard Quartet performance on Sony [link removed 04/04/10] is good (and to be preferred to other recent ones), if not resonantly compelling. The Melos Quartet recording of the Second Quintet on Harmonia Mundi is that good though, and is paired with an equally emotionally devastating Clarinet Quintet. This is another favorite, of course, and supplemented well by the Clarinet Sonatas. These are more enjoyable than the violin or cello sonatas, although the former especially have their merits (and here I will give a nod toward the Mann & Hough performance on Musicmasters). I still favor the de Peyer & Pryor recording on Chandos; maybe the tone isn't as rich as some, but the phrasing and ensemble work are deeply compelling with a latent emotional intensity. These late works often bring a tear to my eye. The truth is I'm rather emotional about music, but I don't like to be hit smack in the face with it.
Well, perhaps this serves to convey some of my enthusiasm for Brahms. I am especially enamored of the chamber combinations and more intimately scored orchestral passages, and this is an area where Brahms' influence has been especially large.
Administrivia: Next column in four weeks, after the holidays and with a little extra break.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb