Brahms D minor and the art of the soloist

One piece on my desk this month is Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor.

I fell in love with the piece as a young teenager when my parents bought an LP of Krystian Zimerman’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. The purchase of the record coincided roughly with that of a new, very awesome stereo system, and I played that record so many times at such high volume that I not only actually wore out the record, but probably did permanent structural damage to the walls of my parents’ living room.

I’ve had a fair bit of contact with the piece over the years, having played it many times in orchestra, and rehearsed it for other conductors as an assistant. It’s fun but difficult to conduct. Most recently, I taught it at last summer’s conducting workshop in Portland, where the astounding Rick Rowley played the solo part.

Still, in all those years and many wonderful recordings, nothing has ever quite equaled the impact of that feeling of electric discovery I felt with that Bernstein/Zimerman disc so long ago. I replaced the LP (which I stole from the folks- sorry, guys) with a CD when it wore out, which taught me a tragic lesson. One cannot comfortably play a CD as loudly as an LP- the PCM waveforms have a jagged characteristic which means the sound becomes hard edged and tiring at high volume. SACD is much better than CD if you really want to upset the neighbors with your Brahms, but LPs are still the best.

A few months back, I saw that DG had released the performances on that LP on DVD. Of course, I ran out and bought it.

It’s still wonderful, but not at all what I pictured- somehow, even in the Musikverein, it’s not as glamorous as I expected. Bernstein, it turns out, did not stand 50 feet tall and was not wearing a yak skin loincloth in the performance, and Zimmerman has only two arms, is not bathed in grizzly bear blood and at no point actually eats the piano. I was also disappointed that the orchestra were not wearing any of the traditional Amazonian make associated with “the hunt.”

I later came across another DVD of the piece by Artur Rubinstein, recorded when he was 88 years old. That’s one year for every note on the piano he could make sound better than just about anyone who ever lived. The conductor on the film is a young-ish Haitink, who I am a huge fan of. I assumed the orchestra playing would be godlike, and it is wonderful. However, Haitink, although fab, was not yet the conductor he would become a few years later. There is a little bit of tension and rigidity in his conducting of the opening that one wouldn’t see in him in his maturity. It’s comforting to know he was human at one point!

Perhaps as a result of that little nervous edge, Haitink arrives at the entrance of the solo part just a little too fast for Rubinstein. What follows is a textbook example of the art of the soloist. Rubinstein not only manages to establish his tempo, which he molds with seemingly infinite flexibility from that point on, but to get the orchestra to immediately let go of any sense of nerves about the complicated cross rhythms that permeate the piece. The old man never seems to so much as twitch his head once, yet you feel that he can take the performance anywhere he wants.

I suppose you could just credit the sensitivity and musicality of Haitink and the Concertgebouw, but I think there’s more to it than that. Reaching a point of true freedom as a soloist is one of the rarest situations in music. The very few soloists I’ve seen who got there didn’t take any shortcuts to do so.

First, you must have a sound that is so beautiful and fascinating that it not only beguiles the audience, but it also encourages the orchestra to play softly enough that they can hear every note you play. Frankly, I’ve only played with one living pianist who had that kind of sound- Ivan Moravec. Simply through the charisma of his tone, he got the whole orchestra listening to him as we never listened to any other soloist. Right away, he had all the freedom in the world.

Secondly, once you have the orchestra’s attention, you have to keep their trust. You can’t just build your rubato around the melodic line- you have to know every part in the score and to understand the rhetoric and the phrase structure of the whole at every moment. Always getting what you want from the orchestra depends in very large part on never, ever wanting the “wrong” thing. Once you start doing things that don’t make sense with the orchestra part, the musicians have to start trying to figure out when to trust you and when to trust their ears and when to trust the conductor. In an instant, you can lose the effortless feeling of breathing and shaping together.

That word- “together”- is important. Playing a concerto may put one in the spotlight, but it is still a form of chamber music. Getting what you want from the orchestra, and having them really listen to you depends on how well you listen to them. Again, it comes down to trust– the orchestra players have to know that they can count on you to respond to them, in the very same way you want them to respond to you. Playing in a corrective, prophylactic or pedagogical manner- using the solo part to tell the orchestra “you were too slow,” “this passage is likely to be too loud” or “you need to count here” means you are not playing musically and logically. Once your playing ceases to sound organic and natural, it becomes almost impossible for any conductor or orchestra to follow it and support it. A true master can correct a tempo in a way that feels completely organic. Figuring out how to do so ought to be part of every soloist’s preparation.

As one learns a concerto (which you should always do FROM THE SCORE, not a solo part and not a  piano reduction), you should be figuring out how you can move a passage along naturally if the one before it sagged, or how you can calm things down if someone starts to work. Great soloists know how to fix problems in such a way that the players may not ever even know there was a problem. They don’t need to know what you don’t want- playing in a way that says “that sucked” only tells them to eliminate one of a billion possible ways of playing a passage. Far better to play in a passage so that the orchestra immediately understands what you wanted, not what you didn’t want. Again, trust is so important- if the musicians are getting the sense that what you want doesn’t work, that you’ve overlooked something in the score, then they really don’t have an easy time accommadating you. Do they cheat a rhythm or leave you in the dust? Remember- if you’re lucky enough to play the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony, it’s a given that every violinist in the orchestra can probably play the notes in the solo part as accurately as you. What makes you a soloist is your knowledge of their part, not your knowledge of your part.

I mentioned the other day that I was on the hunt for some new blogs. The astounding pianist Stephen Hough has a very good blog. I’ve come to admire his playing a lot through his frequent visits to Cardiff. I once saw Hough give a performance of this same Brahms D minor that was an object lesson in the art of the soloist for all the wrong reasons.

He was playing with a wonderful and sensitive orchestra that I had seen overcome poor conducting on countless occasions. This group are such wonderful listeners that they can usually accompany anything no matter what happens on the podium.

Not so on this night. The maestro must have had talent at some point- all that was left was that frightening ability to carry the orchestra with him off the cliff again and again. In this most rhythmically complex of concertos there was a trainwreck in just about ever other bar. He looked like he was conducting a different (and very bad) performance listening on headphones. Stephen would be playing in a perfectly lucid and logical manner and this chap would race ahead or slow to crawl or cue the horns a bar early (and somehow manage to get them to come in, even though I’m sure they knew he was wrong).

Again and again, Stephen swept in like a man in a cape to save the day. In the most fierce virtuoso passages he was able to make adjustment after adjustment to save the performance from stopping altogether. Throughout, he managed to make all of these adjustments and rescues sound perfectly logical and natural. Never once did he play in a way that said “yo people- you’re dragging.” It must have been one of the longest 50 minutes of his career, but he never once showed an ounce of frustration, nor did he miss anything. The rewards for his courage were obvious- the audience went berserk, and he earned a new degree of affection from the musicians for saving them when the maestro had literally made it impossible to save themselves, and backstage afterwards he was just as kind and enthusiastic with them as always. I can’t imagine he wasn’t shaken by aspects of the performance, but he sure wasn’t showing it.

And he was right not to show it. The orchestra may not have sounded quite as he would have wished, but the musicians were doing their best under impossible conditions. Stephen understood that, and bailed them out when they needed it and managed to let them come away from performance feeling positive about surviving a disaster, rather than making them feel like the cause of the disaster.

As I mentioned, Rick Rowley played the Brahms for the RCICW last year. Rick is, like Stephen, so attuned to the orchestra that he can effortlessly switch to accompanying them when they need a little help. He’s so generous that I’ve often felt I should remind him not to save the student conductors too often, or they’ll never learn when they weren’t listening to him. However, absent actual raging incompetence or podium terror so pervasive that they literally can’t hear him, what I’ve noticed is that with a strong organic sense of the piece, a master like Rick can “give in” to the orchestra in a way that puts him back in control- by keeping the musical argument coherent, he’s able to use his playing to take the  performance right back where it should be.

By the way, readers may be interested to know that on that DVD of the Brahms, Rubinstein wears only a pair of chain mail boxer shorts, stands 70 feet tall, has a legbone from a Siberian moose through his nose, plays a piano hewed from the stone of Mount Rushmore with a sound board from which jets of flame 50 stories tall explode and sips a fine single malt from a crystal snifter during long tuttis. Buy it today from your neighborhood retailer.

Finally, as an afterthought, I suppose I should reluctantly point that Rubinstein misses quite a few notes on this performance. Fair enough- he wasn’t 85 anymore. However, this makes the performance all that more worth studying-  he never allows his problems to become problems for the orchestra or the listener. Only a jealous pretender pianist would ever notice the moments of faking. Performance is about communication, about the music and the audience, not about your own personal quest for perfection.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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3 comments on “Brahms D minor and the art of the soloist”

  1. Joshua Slater

    “Performance is about communication, about the music and the audience, not about your own personal quest for perfection.” I may chisel this into my rehearsal room wall.


  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Josh-

    Glad that resonated! The personal quest for perfection is an importan process, but it should be conducted on personal time! In rehearsal and performance, you’re there to communicate, entertain and inspire, not to use the venue to continue the practice process…

  3. Christopher Smith

    Wow, great commentary on how a soloist leads an orchestra! I particularly liked your analysis of trust between the orchestra, the conductor and the soloist, which can apply in so many other contexts as well. As a composer and performing musician, I am only too aware of how easy it is to lose faith in what the composer wrote through something that the composer wanted, but shouldn’t have wanted. When my students protest, “But I WANTED it that way!” I respond, “Then DON’T want it that way. Want something good instead!”

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