Well, the subtitle of my blog is “From Jarrett to Brahms”, so I after writing about the former I may as well write about the latter.
Brahms will always have a special place in my heart, not only he was born in my favorite city in the world (no, not NYC; although that comes close), but his music combines the best of what the so-called “classical” music (which spans several centuries of written music): He has the greatness of Beethoven (his idol), the romanticism of a Schumann (his mentor), the structure of Bach (Brahms studied Counterpoint extensively), he comes from my favorite instrument (the piano), and no matter what piece you hear from him, it has something very uniquely “Brahmsian” about it.
Smarter minds than me have tried to define what that actually consists of, I won’t even try. I’m pretty sure listening to several of Brahms works (for a start, how about Symphony 1, the German requiem, some of his late piano pieces op. 116-119, and some chamber music, e.g. his piano quartet op. 25), and I hope you feel and hear the commonality.
The first oeuvre from Brahms that impressed me was his first piano concerto, in a decent but not outstanding recording with Solti and Andras Schiff. I still very much like this, but will write on it later on. I very quickly started diving into his symphonies, and no. 1 quickly became my favorite (these days, 4 comes very close in my personal preference, 3 is a bit behind, and 2 is nice to have).
By today, I’ve collected at latest count 30 version of “Sinfonie Nr. 1 c-moll op. 68”, to give it its official title. My first early favorite was Otto Klemperer’s version on EMI. Not to far after that, I discovered the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, and all 3 versions I have from him are very very good.
I cannot decide which of these is my favorite, but most likely it is the version with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1951 (or 52?). The other versions I have are with the Hamburg NDR orchestra and the Concertgebouw)
How do I compare versions of this work? Well, usually I’d use a more differentiated approach, but on symphony 1 I’m simple-minded: the chromatic opening part, with the characteristic tympani. If this part doesn’t have the right gravitas and tension (up to a point where I feel all my muscles tensing), I pass on. An example of how not to do it in my mind is Günter Wand (an underrated conductor that I otherwise adore, especially on Bruckner), which takes the opening WAY to fast.
Luckily, Furtwängler keeps the quailty at very high levels up to the end. In this symphony, the first and forth movement are so heavy and important, that the two movements in between barely count. You get a “relaxing” Andante, and a very short and sweet (approx 5 min) Poco Allegretto in between. This is good, because if one had to keep the tension and the overwhelming feelings from movements 1 and 4 for an entire 5 min, you’d probably feel like being on Botox and Extasy at the same time.
So, as said before, movement 1 lives on the dramatic chromatic opening. But it gets even better: movement no. 4 is as ecstatic as the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th (without all over sudden somebody shouting “Oh Froyda” and all the other singing about freedom and equality that goes on after that which pretty much ruins this symphony to me). But you don’t get there easily. This movement with Furtwängler alone is more than 17, and you start very dark and desperate. Luckily we leave the desperation quickly, to a dramatic built up including the mandatory tympani, which gets us to the first amazingly beautiful horn solo at 2:57.
This solo is worth a quick excursion: this theme Brahms had already used earlier in a letter to his beloved Clara Schumann (yes, he was in love with his mentor’s wife, if you read his biography, you wonder why this soap opera material hasn’t made it into a major Hollywood movie yet), with the underlying text:
“Hoch auf´m Berg, tief im Tal grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” (High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I salute you a thousand times). Yes, cheesy, even in the German original, but by then Brahms had moved from his native Hamburg to Austria, and fallen in love with the mountains, and you can really picture a lonely Alphorn playing that beautiful melody for the beloved.
But obviously at, 2:57 we’re not done yet, you 14 min more of “per aspera at astra” (you can google that yourself) fighting, with the occasional relaxing 2nd main motive, which Brahms even admitted was inspired by Beethoven 9. (When asked after the premiere if there are strange similarities between the two works, he replied sarcastically “And even stranger is the fact that every donkey seems to hear that immediately”.
Well in any case, in the last 5 min you get a lot of more brass, some more of the 2nd motive, some more of the Alphorn, tons of tympani some more fighting, which culminates in a dramatic climax in the last 2 min.
Obviously, my description of this amazing masterpiece is quite horrible. Don’t be misled: if you’re able to listen to this movement played by Furtwängler without getting goosebumps all over, you’re either deaf or challenged in some other way (or just have a different taste in music, but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place).
P.S. I’ve later published an addendum to this post here.