Brahms, Brahms and BA…

Our visit to the Cambridge Symphony ended on a high note- this was their first concert of the new season, and they’ve made a concerted effort at “re-branding” the orchestra, with new brochures, programs and website. The efforts paid off handsomely, with a full house in attendance, in spite of the bitter cold weather. Fortunately, our audience was spared the chill we’d experienced the previous morning in rehearsal. The orchestra played their best in the concert- it’s an interesting group, full of rather brilliant people, mostly professors, deans and students from MIT and Harvard. They made us feel welcome and appreciated. Thanks and congrats, CSO!

How sad, then, that we had to miss the after-concert party…

As happens all-too-often, I had to thread the scheduling needle for this program between other gigs, and I had a rehearsal with the HSO the day after this Sunday evening concert. Of course, when flying from American to Britain, one loses a day, so leaving on Monday for a Monday rehearsal was not an option. Instead, we had to catch the last flight of the night from Boston to London, which meant leaving the second the concert was finished. Getting on a trans-Atlantic instead of sipping champagne at a reception was always going to be an anti-climax, but as it happened, we had the misfortune of flying BA with a child.

Here begineth the rant…..I’ve generally had reasonable treatment on British Airways as a solitary professional person traveling by myself. However, and apologies to my colleague I’ll see this week who works for them, on the basis of our travels with them as a family this fall, British Airways are the least family friendly company in the world. Traveling on BA with an infant is a nightmare of incompetence, lies, arrogance and frustration. I never imagined that the central challenge of my life in a concert week would be attempting to book a “bassinet” seat for my little son. Phone calls, emails, on-line check in… we followed the company’s instructions to a “t” and on this, as on all four of our previous flights with them, ended up with nothing but trouble, stress and frustration, with never an apology in sight (although, strangely enough, the actual flight crews are generally much kinder and more helpful than their ground counterparts). Suzanne had flown over with Sam on her own for this concert, and her treatment at Heathrow was shambolic and disgraceful- how anyone could be outright mean to a mother of an 8th-old travelling on their own is beyond me, but it seems to be standard operating procedure there. I like to keep the tone positive, but if you are thinking of taking your young children on a BA flight, think again. Here endeth the rant.

Fortunately, we made it to Heathrow on time and made our way to Hereford for my evening rehearsal for the HSO 50th Anniversary Concert. I’m sharing the program with 2 other conductors- I’m just conducting Brahms 2nd Symphony as the second half of the concert. Now, I have to say that playing the Brahms Double the day before conducting Brahms 2 (albeit in a rehearsal) is kind of my idea of the good life, even if it involves going without sleep for 36 hours.

I did Brahms 1 in April with the OES, and managed to check out quite a few recordings and DVDs of the piece (something I only do AFTER I’ve learned the piece), as well as reading a couple of books and revisiting the score. My preparation for Brahms 2 has been a bit more compressed, but I did manage to check out some recordings, many of which were part of “sets” that I’d already checked out for Brahms 1.

My comparisons of a number of conductor’s pairings of the two works led to a rather surprising conclusion- very few conductors can do both pieces well. I found this surprising because I think of Brahms, perhaps more than any other major composer, as really only having one “style.” His early, middle and late works are all written in manifestly the same voice and language, and require more or less the same tonal palette from the performers.

However, the personalities of the pieces vary widely. I think the Beethovenian drama of the First needs a conductor with the balls and gravitas to take the music by the throat and shake it about a bit, while the Second needs more of a Zen-like calm trust in the music- a conductor who is confident enough to let the piece unfold without too much meddling or manipulation.

Not surprising then, that conductor A, who brought me to tears with his epic First sounded so ponderous, overblown and artificial in the Second or that conductor B, polished but utterly forgettable in the First weaved pure gold in the Second.

A careful survey of the many recordings of the Brahms symphonies also makes one fact painfully clear- we conductors do some stupid shit. It’s no wonder players shake their heads in despair. How can a conductor who has managed ever turn of phrase and tricky transition in one movement do something so perverse and bizarre in the next one? How can you get to the final 40 seconds of the Finale of either Brahms 1 or 2 without a single miscalculation, then botch the ending so badly that the listener has to hit “rewind” just to see if he or she misheard it? How frustrating for the poor musicians who’ve played so well for 45 minutes to see their hard work go up in flames.

Take conductor “S,” someone I admire a lot (and the favorite conductor of my man EK). His first movement of the 2nd is as good as they come- luminous orchestra playing, effortlessly paced, spacious, warm, glorious. It’s the kind of deeply cultured and unique orchestra playing one almost never hears any more. However, after a marvelous opening, the 2nd Movement becomes a gross caricature  of “slow music fast, loud music slow” and the Finale a twisted inversion of that “loud music fast, soft music slow.” Of all the bad ideas of all the conductors out there, this all-too-often heard idea of treating the opening of the Finale of Brahms 2 as some kind of Adagio introduction, then taking off like the Keystone cops at the first forte has to be one of the, er, stupidest and silliest sounding things I’ve ever heard. It is my opinion that doing so sounds absurd, but more to the point, it is exactly the opposite of what Brahms wrote. “S” is not alone in this madness, I’m just baffled that someone who in the 1st movement could be the epitome of taste could adopt so absurd a path in the Finale.

Finally- for the curious, Brahms 2 is one of those works which seems to invite the possibility of an over-arching set of tempo relationships for the entire piece. This is the sort of thing one can find in plenty of classical works, and this is, after all, his more classical symphony.

Allowing for the fact that a tempo in Brahms is really a range of tempo, one can find a set of tempi where one bar of the first movement equals one beat of the second movement (dotted half=quarter/dotted quarter). The first and third movements end up being almost identical tempi (quarter=quarter), and the bar of the first movement can also be the same as the bar of the Finale (dotted half=whole note).

It’s not something that needs to be plotted out with metronomes and adhered to pedantically (Beethoven loved these kinds of relationships, but always took care to make them slightly imprecise when using metronome markings, ie “a little more than twice as fast as the preceding section.”). On the other hand, I think that the concerts where you come away thinking something like “crikey, that movement was way too slow” are the ones where we’ve left that neighborhood for at least one of the movements. It’s probably the First movement that sees the widest range of tempo choices- it’s music that can be felt and conducted in either three or one, but I think that if you’ve picked a tempo that can ONLY be felt in one of those pulse units, you’ve probably left the neighborhood.

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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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1 comment on “Brahms, Brahms and BA…”

  1. Erik K

    The 2nd is indeed the low point of the “S” cycle, IMO, first movement aside. Fortunately, it’s all uphill from there, IMO. If you haven’t listened to the live Giulini/Chicago Symphony recording, let me know, because it’s unfathomably exciting and a must hear. Good luck!

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