In Classical Music, there is a curious phenomenon that sometimes happens: a beautiful piece of music will have been written by a well-known composer, but it is rather overshadowed by his/her other great works. Because of this, there tend to be less recordings of these pieces by the greater ensembles on the planet.
Johannes Brahms is a composer whose works I have always had a tumultuous relationship with. The Piano Quintet in f minor has been one of my favourite compositions since grade school, but his orchestral works, often performed in youth orchestra phase, were less appealing. Their textures and emotions were too thick, and the neverending syncopations were – for lack of a better word – annoying. In my junior year of college, I studied his Piano Quartet in c minor, but it took a few years for me to truly appreciate the beauty of the work. I still did not care for any of his symphonic pieces. As Schubert was for [Nodame], Brahms was just very difficult for me to communicate with.
Lately, though, that has started to change a little. Maybe it’s experience, maturity, or simply sophistication. For my final graduate recital, I performed three of his Hungarian Dances and was required to research them extensively for a paper. During this time, Brahms’s complicated character and motivations became clearer to me, and perhaps as a result, I’m more forgiving to his music. Any man that likes Beethoven as much as he can’t be all that terrible.
At Aspen, I met the Serenade No. 1 in D Major for the first time, and it solidified my appreciation for Brahms. However, because the library was working so much during the time period when it was performed, my impression was created through the tiny snippets that made it through the door. A revisit was finally accomplished tonight, but due to the lack of a decent recording to stream online, I am not sure I still have a full grasp of the piece.
The first movement contains all these Beethoven flourishes mixed with the typical Brahms harmonic progressions that makes it horrendously tough to tune, apparently, since no recording was in tune (especially the oboe solo that permeates the entire movement.) The Adagio has these unexpectedly wonderful key changes without which the entire work may have been unimaginative. Any conductor who ignores these gems deserves to be kicked off his podium. And then the fifth movement Scherzo Trio is absolutely fun to listen to (and I’m sure to perform.) The rest of the movement again calls back to Beethoven (Edward Downes would argue me that the work leans more to Haydn and Mozart, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but my besotted brain gravitates to Beethoven first.) and features some fabulous counterpoint. The woodwind solos and ensembles throughout the entire work are somehow heartfelt as opposed to splashy or soloistic – but God help the musicians when it’s out of tune. All the movements are susceptible to becoming overly heavy-handed and plodding if performed without the correct momentum from either the podium or orchestra.
…Brahms is difficult!
This October, I will (hopefully) hear a program of the Symphony No. 2 and 4 by the Philadephia Orchestra. Honestly- and not to criticize as the artistic direction probably had some musical point in programming it that way- the Serenade No. 1, or its more well-known companion Serenade No. 2, would make a better companion to one of the symphonies. The Serenade No. 1 is an inoffensive and well-composed cousin to the symphonies, but equally demanding to perform and present to do all those the intricacies justice. Why don’t orchestras perform this one more often? Meanwhile, the symphonies are growing on me, if only movement by movement (Movement III of Symphony No. 2 is a particular favorite, but the part that makes me happiest is a few measures in the opening of the fourth movement that incidentally relies on a bit of syncopation.)
That all being said, if anyone knows of a fabulous recording of the Serenade No. 1 or the Samuel Barber Sonata for Cello and Piano, please let me know. I would love to hear these compositions in their full glory.