April 16, 2009

Knowing Brahms, Inside and Out

This weekend’s Philharmonic concert includes one of my favorite pieces in the whole repertoire, Johannes Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. In fact, if I were ever banished to a desert island, this piece might make my short list of music to take along. I know, it may seem like a funny choice for a violinist to make, but this music is phenomenal.

Really, there are only two kinds of music, the kind that describes the outside world and the sort that is about what is inside us. Brahms falls squarely in the interior group, and he is dead honest. His music rarely sounds plainly “happy” or “sad.” And, really, how often are we just one or the other? Brahms offers complex emotions, or even just memories of them, that are familiar to everyone but cumbersome to describe with words.

Take for example, this piano concerto. The first movement always brings me back to the first place I performed this piece, in the foothills of the Rockies at Boulder, Colorado. I am sure that is my individual image, but I hear the majesty and freedom of waterfalls, jagged rocks, and green humidity, all hard to describe. The second movement is a dance that begins deep in the earth, almost in a cave, but is echoed in lighter layers above, birds, clouds… Well, maybe that’s it.

Brahms not only offers these complex emotions but is admirably economical about his work. His orchestration was conservative for that time, with no exotic percussion or expanded woodwinds in the mix. Brahms also unifies his music by recycling short bits of melody throughout his monumental pieces. The last movement really takes a playful idea through its paces.

Truly a centerpiece of this concerto is the very beautiful third movement. A single cello, as tenor soloist, sings at length (perhaps!) about his profound love for a woman. The stuff of this music is borrowed like Adam’s Rib from the first movement. Brahms was such a master at thematic transformation that we don’t really notice the recycling at all. His craft, emotion and just the tune itself are really what bring this piece to my “island list.”

We might expect this Brahms to have been a “sensitive guy,” maybe with a doe-eyed look and a soft handshake. The truth is that Brahms was awkward, brusque and often even rude in conversation. In his later years, he rather took on a gnomish look: long, grey beard, big belly, hands clasped in back. Some might have said he was the typical man “from Mars,” unable to communicate well socially, but his music tells the whole story of what a sensitive individual he was. The rewards of getting to know him are great, and there is no better place to start than with his second piano concerto.

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