Brahms 1st symphony – why it means so much to me

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).

Wilhelm Furtwängler

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.

Keith Jarrett live in Lucerne May 22, 2015

So, first entry. I had created this blog some time ago, thinking I’ll probably never write anything. The subtitle, from Jarrett to Brahms, I created with the site some time ago. Now I attended yesterday my first ever Keith Jarrett solo concert, so do I really have an excuse not to write about it? Why would you want to read this? No idea, I’m basically writing this for myself. I do love music, and I care about it very much and like sharing it, so if you share my passion, and maybe at least partially my taste, it maybe worth reading anyhow.

So back to the officially named “Kunst- und Kulturzentrum Luzern”, better known by its acronym, KKL. It is a beautiful building in on the shore of lake Lucerne, created by the French architect Jean Nouvel. In spite of heaving a leaky roof (google it if you want to find out more), it is a beautiful space, with loads of glass and steel. Inside you have a museum, some restaurants and cafés, a nice open roof top terrace with an amazing view over the old town and the lake, and most importantly, the main concert hall. It is a beautiful affair, and has excellent acoustics. It is mainly known for hosting the famous Lucerne Festival, but beyond classical you can attend contemporary music and the occasional Jazz concert here as well. They even go into mainstream by having some orchestra play the soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean and other stuff (why somebody would want to hear THAT in concert, escapes me, but I digress).

So back to me being in front of this beautiful building. You should know that being disorganized and traveling a lot for work I wasn’t part of the crowd who bought ALL of the tickets in the 48h after they became available. I went nevertheless, trying my luck on the grey market. And lucky I was (well if you consider overpaying 25% over the already pretty ludicrous (Switzerland is a rich country) list price of the ticket.) Note that normally I would have ethically objected to supporting the grey market on this kind of stuff, but for such a rare bird as a Keith Jarrett solo concert, my conscience quickly shut up.

An amazing experience

8pm pretty sharp (this is Switzerland after all), sitting more or less comfortable in my seat in the middle of the first balcony (at least the black market dealer had the kindness of actually choosing one of the best seats available), lights went out, a speaker welcomed us and warned us all to shut up, switch of mobiles, and ABSOLUTELY not to take any pictures of any kind. (It seems that Keith has decided to stop concerts in the past over this) We’re left with one grand piano on the large stage that can easily hold a full Mahler 8th orchestra including Choir, and about 4 microphones (this concert being recorded for ECM, hopefully it will eventually get released). There he comes, wearing his apparently usual outfit of pretty regular pants, shirt, and sunglasses (I assume to protect him from the spotlights). I’m not a religious person at all, but this was pretty close to a catholic mass in a way, with Mr. Jarrett being our high priest. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had smelled incense.

Then it starts, and here my words start to fail me. WHAT AN EXPERIENCE! I’m a regular concert goer and have seen many great artists both in the Jazz and classical fields live, but this was outstanding. Unlike earlier may of his earlier concerts, he now seems to shy away from the 20-30 min long improvisations that fade one into the other, and he goes for smaller pieces, each 3 to less than 10 min long (I certainly didn’t check my watch…), getting up for applause every time. In a way, this is similar to his latest release solo album on ECM, Creation, where the longest piece doesn’t exceed 9:25). What a marvel each of those little gems were! Let me state first of all that I’m a sucker for melodies, being a bit simple minded, and I don’t like it very much when musicians stray to far from that. Jarrett has his occasional moments where he seems to think “who needs tonality” and just improvises on (to illustrate, take Paris/London Testament Part IX). Luckily for me, there were only two “songs” of this nature last night, and actually sitting there as part of the magical experience I didn’t even mind these parts too much. Let me state the obvious: Having been there in person doesn’t make me a very neutral judge. But what I’ve heard last night takes the best elements of the “old” concerts (Bremen/Lausanne, München/Bregenz, Sun Bear), and combines them with the greatest moments of the new concerts (Rio, Carnegie Hall). Again, I’m not religious, but I wouldn’t mind having some higher authority to pray to that ECM releases this recording (apparently, Jarrett has to ok this and is notoriously hard to please).

Jarrett having fun

I don’t have any other data points to compare to, but overall, he seemed to be in an excellent mood. He was joking with the audience, at some point once the applause faded he just said “What next? What now?”, closed the cover of the Steinway keyboard and pretended to play (“You don’t hear a lot?” was his joking comment back to the audience). Later during the concert, he even went up, walked over to a microphone that had been sitting in the dark, and told us a story about how this entire concert was for his Grandmother, and her Hungarian origins. Walking back to the piano, he rhetorically, and smilingly, asked the audience “but why would you care about this?” He even tolerated somebody very loudly coughing about 2 seconds into a new song, stopping but just joking about it (I assume me and half of the audience were afraid at that point he’d throw a tantrum instead).

Overall, the range of styles we got was amazing, from small introvert pieces that played a lot with Counterpoint (you could hear he played a lot of baroque) too much heavier, larger pieces where every finger was busy. We even got a very special tribute to BB King, with a Blues/Boogie Woogie-type improvisation. But the best (again, I’m a sucker for melodies) part came with encore number 3, a short improvisation over “When I fall in love”. I’ve only heard this from him in trio form (e.g. Live at the Blue Note, Whisper now), but never heard it solo. SOOOO BEAUTIFUL (yes I know I sound like an over excited teenager praising Justin Bieber, but what the heck). Even better than my previous encore favorite (beyond the obvious Köln Concert Part IIc), My Song from the Carnegie Hall Concert. Overall, I’m very glad I finally made it to my first live concert.

If you like his music, and there is a concert coming up even on your continent, I urge you to hop on a plane and go there, no matter how expensive the tickets are. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience. And let’s not forget, Mr. Jarrett just turned 70. We all cross fingers he’s doesn’t decide to retire any time soon,   but let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Let me stop here. In a later blog entry, I’ll talk a bit more about the other recorded live solo albums. No idea how often I’ll be able to write, but again, I just presume nobody will ever read this anyhow.