Classical music: Brahms

Among the composers of the "classical canon" I've identified most strongly over the course of my life with Brahms, and several of his works have been favorites. Although it would be difficult to make the case that Brahms makes as much historical impact or has as much command of form as did Beethoven, his music continues to be exemplary of the height of 19th century style. It is no secret that the tradition diverged particularly sharply after his time. Brahms captures a spirit of concision and formal innovation within the strict context, and his rather ascerbic personality fits my own at times. All of these factors make this music particularly enjoyable for me.

I have not particularly warmed up to German Romantic vocal music, and of course this is the bulk of Brahms' output. Songs are the one genre he developed throughout his life. After that, his instrumental pieces are relatively few, and each presents its own strengths. However, I am generally less taken by the works of Brahms' youth, and so start my interest with the First Symphony. After that, the chamber music is the core of my interest.

Each of Brahms' four symphonies is enjoyable in its own way, and I value each for different reasons. These are my favorite symphonies, by far, and the Fourth in particular has been a personal inspiration since childhood (making me an odd child, I suppose). There is a wonderful clarity of thought in these works, as well as the sort of concision and balanced exploitation of timbre which adds up to the finest accomplishment. The following set is particularly enjoyable:

Brahms: The Four Symphonies / German Requiem
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / The Monteverdi Choir - John Eliot Gardiner
Monteverdi Productions / Soli Deo Gloria 702-6 (5 CDs)

These are "period" performances, and scrupulously researched. The resulting clarity in the instrumental textures is superb, as is the pacing and handling of internal rhythms. I do not know what others have had to say about these recordings, but I've found them quite compelling. (I previously had Haitink's set with the Boston Symphony listed here.)

Among the concerti, the second piano concerto has always been a favorite, as I particularly enjoy the piano part and the way the orchestra is scored. I have warmed up to the violin concerto more slowly, but enjoy the cross-rhythms in the opening movement in particular. The double concerto is a lighter work, but a favorite for its tunefulness. The following performances have their strengths:

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2
Stephen Hough / BBC Symphony Orchestra - Andrew Davis
Virgin Classics 91138
Brahms: Violin Concerto / Double Concerto
Gidon Kremer / Clemens Hagan / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Teldec 13137

The performance by Hough is especially articulate, and an immediate favorite for me. Everything hangs together from beginning to end. The Harnoncourt performances are more controversial, and I am somewhat more ambivalent, but I enjoy the way the violin concerto opens in this reading with its fragmented phrasing. The double concerto is presented relatively unpretentiously, which is essential for the piece.

Finally moving on to the chamber music, this is the area in which Brahms speaks to me most directly. As opposed to Beethoven, where the solo piano music is the core of his output and the thread to which other developments are related, Brahms' solo works are few and relatively unimportant. It is the ensemble pieces which form the core of his output, and the one form in which he worked throughout his career is the piano trio. Besides the three published trios, Brahms reportedly made several other attempts, so that this genre forms the closest thing to a connected thread in his output. In other chamber forms, his compositions tend to occur in one brief period, rather than being spread out. A very satisfying set devoted to the trios:

Brahms: The Piano Trios
Beaux Arts Trio
Philips 416 838 (2 CDs)

Regarding the other major chamber mediums, Brahms' string quartets are rather uneven, although the third quartet definitely has its moments. The violin sonatas are also enjoyable, but ultimately do not work as well for me as either the piano trios on one end or the clarinet sonatas on the other.

Although the Piano Trios can be seen as the core of his output, specific works in other forms are more directly appealing to me. This is particularly true of the string quintets. The first is rather unwieldy in form, but has its good moments. The second is one of my favorite works of any kind, and perhaps the highlight of Brahms' entire oeuvre. The related clarinet quintet is also impressive, and certainly not to be missed. It is perhaps a bit too unrelenting when compared to the more balanced second string quintet. I also value the clarinet sonatas, as they have both a deep melancholy as well as a fluid handling of form. Highly recommended recordings in this area are:

Brahms: Quintettes, Op. 111 & 115
Melos Quartett / Gérard Caussé / Michel Portal
Harmonia Mundi 901349
Brahms: Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano
Gervase de Peyer / Gwenneth Pryor
Chandos 8563

The first recording is a "desert island" disc for me, and is perhaps the most-played CD I own. Everything seems perfect in those performances. The second recording is also extremely good, and finely nuanced.

I have made some other remarks within the files for the individual CDs, although many of those are rather dated at this point. I have not really pursued more recent interpretations of most of these pieces.


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Todd M. McComb
3 July 1998
Updated: 2 April 2012