Friday Brahms thoughts….

I turned down what I’m sure was going to be a very, very good homemade Indian dinner tonight because I am on what many of you may consider a fools errand.

Of all the pieces in my repertoire, I would say Brahms 1 is near the top of the list of pieces I would be happy to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in with no warning or prep time (a level of familiarity and comfort I’m sure I share with most conductors). Given how busy I find myself these days, it may seem like a glorious time waster that I am trying to listen attentively to every recording I have (and several new ones I’ve recently discovered). At 40-50 minutes per recording, that is a huge job, and one I won’t manage to finish this week.

Now, I’m 100% against learning pieces from recordings, or even learning interpretations from recordings- one can’t simply take Furtwangler’s tempo in the introduction and Gunter Wand’s in the Allegro and have something make any sense. This is not collage making. However, I don’t want to be limited to only the boundaries of my own intellect and imagination, so I am studying the art of performance and interpretation in this piece, as well as, and separately from, studying the piece itself. All this while trying to avoid getting hung up on “ooh, isn’t it cool the way he brought out the 3rd horn there,” and instead trying to understand the cause and effect relationships that make performances happen or not.

I want to be careful not to turn this post into a ranking of recordings or a catalog of criticisms, but I think it might be interesting, if I can mange to nuance this carefully enough, to try to chart some of the more interesting reactions I’ve had to the dozens of recordings I’ve listened to lately. My challenge is this exercise has been to listen in an engaged but dispationate way- to try and keep my own prejudices and preferences to the side. Also, I’m trying to be an observer, not a judge- I’m looking for tempos, but especially tempo relationships, ways of responding to (or not responding to) dynamics and articulations, different kinds of rubato and other tempo manipulations, sound quality, balance, phrasing. Along the way, I might find that this or that moment really affected me, and then I can try to ask myself why.

Take one performance I tracked down on DVD (DVD is far more interesting and instructive- it’s great to be able to see what bowings were used, when woodwinds are doubled, what the conductor is beating and who he or she is looking at and so on). Of all the gazillion recordings I’ve heard it seemed to have really well chosen tempos and immaculate balances, lovely dynamics, beautiful and confident solo playing. However, forgive me if I sound like one of “those” kind of critics- although the performance filled me with admiration, it didn’t leave my inspired or moved, even though it was not cold music making. Why? I’m not sure, but I think Brahms somehow has to sound challenging, pure mastery is not the thing in this music.

Then there is a DVD of Takashi Asahina. I’ve only become aware of him in the last few years, as he has become something of a cult figure. This DVD, like others I’ve seen, only serves to increase the mystery around his craft- even as a professional conductor (and conductor evaluator), I can’t begin to figure out how it is all working. Yes, orchestras can play perfectly with almost anything in front of them, but, in spite of his rather non-dynamic-specific way of beating it is such an astoundingly moving performance, and has an electricity in the playing in almost every bar. I’d love to talk to some of his colleagues (any out there among our readers?) and find out where that all-encompassing energy comes from. (This recording also has one of the best wrong notes I’ve heard in years, where the oboist repeatedly plays B natural instead of B sharp in the 2nd mvt solo at letter B- maybe the publisher should have labled that letter B#)

The best Brahms performances (the best performances of anything, but especially Brahms) are those that arrive, where all that has happened expresses its meaning in a point of total culmination. As a result, you have to commit to hearing the whole thing or you are wasting your time. A performance may be full of perplexing or even frustrating turns, and yet culminate in something totally shattering, or be politically correct at every moment, yet leave one cold.

The Brahms symphonies are at the top of the list of works we expect any decent orchestra to be able to play well, but, boy oh boy, have I heard some turds among the performances I’ve been to over the years. In fact, the worst live performance of anything I’ve ever heard by any classical ensemble or performer at any level, was of Brahms 1, and this was in spite of the fact that the orchestra (the Pittsburgh Symphony) played pretty much technically beyond reproach. Lest you think that’s just me being bitter about not getting to conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony, you should have heard the players sat next to me and my colleagues in our trio at the bar afterwards… The capacity of an egomaniacal conductor to violate and deform a piece of music is pretty terrifying. I still get mad when I think of it.

There are also performances that stick in the mind for the wrong reasons- the SLOW performance, the NERVOUS HORN PLAYER, the FLUTE VIBRATO FROM HELL, or the BAD EDIT all come to mind, even though each of those recordings have wonderful, wonderful qualities.

Then there are incredibly well-intentioned efforts that just don’t quite seem to work. There is a famous recent recording that is modeled on the performance history at the Meiningen Orchestra, which worked regularly with Brahms during his lifetime when Hans von Bulow was the conductor. This “Meiningen” tradition was handed down from generation to generation from Bulow, to his successor Steinbach and then on to Abendroth. Steinbach left something of a musical will in the form of a detailed essay dictated to his colleague Walter Blume (some of which is available in Performing Brahms ed. Bernard Sherman and Michael Musgrave).

On this famous cd set, I almost get the feeling of listening to two performances inter-cut—one naturally flowing for the musical instincts of the (very good) conductor, and then these moments where he seems to be saying “ah yes, Blume says to take time here.” The effect can be jarring, like the transition to the recap of the first movement (around bars 333-4) where I must admit I laughed out loud at the lumpy and awkward tempo shift, when everything before seemed to be going so well.  It just goes to show you that good research does not always make for good performance. Again, you can’t just add someone else’s idea to your clipboard and paste it into to your performance. The end result betrays you every time.

In any case, I am skeptical of the Meiningen approach. I feel that Brahms affinity for von Bulow’s orchestra stemmed from his respect for the uncommonly high standard than a sympathy for Bulow’s rather Wagnerian attitude to rubato, or a preference for small groups. Brahms at one point rather caustically commented after playing one of his piano concertos with Bulow that he (Brahms) couldn’t seem to slow down and speed up enough to satisfy the conductor. Also, the notion that Brahms wanted, rather than accepted, a smaller orchestra is belied by his asking a friend what he thought people would make of “von Bulow’s little string quartet.” Ouch.

Yes, he worked a lot with Meiningen, but he also worked a lot with the Vienna Philharmonic, which played his symphonies with groups of 100+ players. Like Beethoven, I think Brahms wanted his music to be accessible to as many sizes of orchestra, from 100 piece groups with doubled winds, down to 45 member chamber orchestras. Of course, one never hears large orchestra performances use half vs full string sections, something we know Beethoven asked for in large scale performances of his music, and that Brahms would have almost certainly expected in his time.

Brahms was a rubato player, and someone who expected flexibility, but he also was an architectural thinker, and this is the key for me in developing this performance- flexibility, but in proportion. No lurches. Nothing so big that it would really deserve something like “meno mosso” or “accelerando” in the score, but never falling into predictability or binding the music in a straight jacket. Those kind of very obvious tempo manipulations seem to just obliterate the sense of cumulative energy that this piece thrives on, so one just needs to stir the soup from time to time.

Anyway, I’m working on it….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “Friday Brahms thoughts….”

  1. ComposerBastard

    * wine tasting of a post, and drank up every one of your points..(.ok that was cheap, but I enjoyed reading it.)
    * random silly thoughts fly in my head – smaller orchestra = obvious chamber music roots of Brahms music + more ease and more rubato; larger orchestra = slower tempo for better intonation; if play for arrival then you are playing for climax…therefore, suspense points before main climax need the most creative work in bringing out

  2. Guy Aron

    Hi Ken

    I had the good fortune to hear the Brahms 2nd at the age of 14 or so at high school, where I was doing elective music. The 1st is the one I know the least, and it is probably about the least performed (in Australia at least). The only performance I have of it is Bernstein/VPO (or is it Concertgebouw? anyway the Deutsche Grammophon one). Liked it a lot, especially the finale. Is this on your list? Characteristic conviction.

    BTW the Brahms 2nd I heard first, and still like best, is Kertesz/LSO. (It is hard to hear beyond these formative performances.) I probably like the work because it is a somewhat more relaxed work than 1st – all those cool greys like a Melbourne autumn. (Still find the finale to #1 problematic.) Glad you still like the work & can find your way to hearing it for yourself. I think Brahms is the composer I would most not be without.

  3. Mark Stringer

    This article is horribly researched in regards to the Meiningen Tradition. First of all, Steinbach did not leave his thoughts as a will to Blume – the book in question was written 20 years after Steinbach’s death about Steinbach, not BY Steinbach. The book citation you give is an English translation of just one chapter; the whole thing was privately published by Blume in 1933 in Stuttgart and has not been properly published in any language since.
    The Vienna Philharmonic in Brahms’s day had a MAXIMUM of 12 first violins for their subscription concerts, only one desk more than in Meiningen, and had large numbers on their roster only because they needed a large pool of players, mostly apprentices, to rotate work in the pit of the Hofoper. For concerts their numbers would normally average around 60 players. This is also the size orchestra Bruckner expected. And coincidentally Brahms hated the way the Vienna Philharmonic played his symphonies under Hans Richter.
    The quote about speeding up and slowing down “for” Bülow is misquoted. It came from a joint tour of the fourth symphony in 1884 where Brahms and von Bülow alternated CONDUCTING duties, and Brahms disapproved of the comparatively *straight* conducting of his famous colleague. By comparison, Brahms writes that he himself could not make enough speeding up and slowing down – to please HIMSELF.
    I could go on, but this post is an example of the shallow nonsense all too common on the web these days. Go do your homework like a proper scholar.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    I’m an “open to discussion” kind of guy, so I’ve approved this comment in spite of its rather intemperate tone.

    Professor Stringer, whose work I’m familiar with, is wrong or at least mis-representing my statements on a number of points here. What he seems to have missed completely, however, is that this post was not intended as a piece about Meiningen (a worthy subject I would be happy to return to later), but about discrepencies and disagreements in the early historical record of Brahms’ music in performance.

    This is the larger point I was making in this post (not, by the way, an article)- that scholars and performers will indeed always argue these and other points on all composers, sometimes intemperately, and may resort to a certain degree of chest-thumping machismo in advocating their various orthodoxies. These playground rituals are usually fairly entertaining, sometimes enlightening, and often good publicity.

    At the end of the day, all this biographical information is only of the most limited value- Brahms himself did, like many other composers, speak of his music and his collaborators, in frequently contradictory terms. He could very easily have specified the tempo modifications discussed above in the published editions of his scores, and in some cases was asked to do so, and he did not. Likewise, he could have specified string counts or the use or non-use of woodwind doublings. (Throughout the 18th and 19th c.’s the presence of say, two oboe parts in a score did not neccessarily mean the composer expected two oboists onstage. Beethoven’s symphonies were sometimes premiered with solo winds and small string sections, other times with doubled winds and huge string sections).

    Comforting as it would be to have some secondary source that somehow clarifies Brahms’ intentions, Brahms gave us only one definitive source- the scores. I’ve often quoted the example of my five friends and teachers who all studied with or worked for Copland, who have all relayed to me wildly conflicting versions of “what Aaron wanted” in pieces like Appalachian Spring or the Clarinet Concerto. Likewise with Shostakovich, whose answers to direct questions were often contradictory and unhelpful- he was more concerned with avoiding offence than in repeating what he’d already made clear in the scores. Like Brahms, he felt that trying to explain musicality to someone who lacks it is a hopeless endeavor. So it has always been.

    Also, composers of the common practice were hardly foolish enough to compose works whose viability depended on the slavish re-creation of the performing tradition of a single orchestra under a single conductor in a single hall. Even if it were Meiningen that Brahms wished us to imitate, was it the sound under concertmaste A or B, principal cellist A or B, oboist A or B? The difference in string sound of a great orchestra from one concertmaster to another can be as great as the difference between two difference orchestras.

    All of this extrinsic context and background has some value, but that value is really quite limited because the historical record is so painfully contradictory. Professor Stringer’s comment only reinforces that point- here we are looking at the same body of evidence and not coming to the same conclusions. Brahms had every opportunity to incorporate additional tempo modifications in his scores- he declined to do so.

    Does the overwhelming body of evidence point to Brahms’ belief in a flexible approach to tempo? Yes. However, it’s also clear that his sense of rubato was a moderate one- when asked if his natural sense of forward motion or hesitancy should be enshrined in the score as a poco accel or poco rit, he always refused. The rule in Brahms’ music seems obvious- if your rubato becomes drastic enough that it might need an Italian term in the score, you are doing too much. The reader will recall that I arrived at Meiningen in the context of a discussion of recorded performances. My concern with the excellent Mackerras set is that when he does utilize the Blume/Steinbach tempo touches it sounds very inorganic in the context of the rest of the performance. Just as I wrote above-
    “one can’t simply take Furtwangler’s tempo in the introduction and Gunter Wand’s in the Allegro and have something make any sense”
    it seems obvious that cutting and pasting interperative points from a letter, article, book or other external source is just as much a fool’s hobby as doing so with bits and pieces of recorded performances.

    Anyway, Mark, I thank you for taking the time to write- it’s not pleasant to receive a rather un-collegial comment, but I respect anyone who cares enough about Brahms to take so obvious an interest in the historical context of his music. I hope this response encourages you to re-read the orignal post with a more open mind and a clearer focus on the subject, rather than simply looking for things to disagree with. If you would like to write a guest blog post on Meiningen rather than on the differences between performance approaches of various conductors and orchestras, I would be happy to publish it here (assuming it is good).


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