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March 23   -   Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium

Orbiting Planet Brahms

Maybe it is because I’m more or less at the mid-point of a Brahms cycle with the Surrey Mozart players, but right now, I feel like I’m orbiting planet Brahms. 2012 is looking like a Brahms year for Ken, and I like that a lot. I’ve been accumulating some morsels of Brahmsian prejudice that I’ve wanted to share here. 1- I really don’t like the Schoenberg arrangement of the opus 25 no. 1 Piano Quartet. I like Schoenberg. I like the G minor Piano Quartet. I like Schoenberg’s arrangements of the Emperor Waltz and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, but I’ve never warmed to what Schoenberg reputedly called Brahms’s Symphony no. 5. I heard it again on the radio last week, and what really annoyed me was that maybe 30% of it sounds like vintage Brahms, %20 of it sounds like someone trying to imitate Brahms and not managing it, and %50 percent of it sounds like Schoenberg’s take on Brahms. I’d far rather it sound 100% unidiomatic and totally like Schoenberg, but the seesawing back and forth between styles really bothers me. It’s such an epic piece, and the inconsistent approach to the orchestration seems to carve it up into little chunks. I think the arrangement is also exhibit A in why Brahms is the 2nd most underrated orchestrator ever, after Schumann. It’s not that people think Brahms is a bad orchestrator (a charge often erroneously leveled by fools at the great Bobby Schumann), it’s just they don’t think of him as an orchestrator, yet his orchestration is incredibly personal and hard to replicate. At least Schoenberg seemed to find it hard. It always engages the musicians and always serves the music. 2- Speaking of hubris- on the shelf in my office is a nearly finished orchestration of the Brahms A major Piano Quartet, opus 25 no. 2. In spite of my inability to warm to Schoenberg’s arrangement of the G minor, and in full realization of the fact that Schoenberg was a genius and I’m, at best, a hack, a few years ago I felt a sudden, overpowering impulse to orchestrate it. I was coaching an amateur group on the piece and, in trying to help the pianist conceptualize the sound and articulation for the beginning, I suddenly heard it orchestrated in a very specific way. I was so struck by the sound of it in my head that I had to sit down and sketch out an orchestral version of the whole piece. Some of the pianistic writing gave me fits, which is why I haven’t finished it, but I’m so desperate to hear the opening that I will have to finish the whole thing this summer. 3- Speaking of the G minor Piano Quartet- When I was first learning the piece, I was baffled by a passage in the first movement for violin and viola in unison. It’s in a funny range for both of them, and, in addition to being hard to tune, the overtones rang in a very strange way. It always bothered me- I couldn’t figure out why on earth Brahms had doubled the part. Then, one night, I dreamed I was sat on a bench in Central Park (I was living in Wisconsin at the time), when Brahms himself (young, dashing Brahms, not big bearded Brahms) sat down next to me. We exchanged a bit of small talk and then he asked me if I was enjoying working on his Piano Quartet. I told him I was absolutely loving it, but that I did find that one passage perplexing. “Herr Ken,” he said,” My intention in zis passage was to evoke ze sound of the horn, which I thought would best suit ze broad character of ze tema. I think if zey balance their parts correctly, it should have zis effect.” The next morning in rehearsal, I suggested to my colleagues that they might try to aim for a more horn-like sound in that passage. It sounded GREAT. Later, at the pub, I told them of my chat with Brahms. They looked at me with protective bemusement, then ordered me another beer. Much as I hoped for further insights from the master, that was the last time he spoke to me. Perhaps my biggest problem with Schoenberg’s orchestration of the piece is that he doesn’t score that melody for horn. Maybe I should orchestrate the G minor, too- just so I can hear that theme as Brahms conceived it? Herr Ken- tell zem to play it more horny, bitte. 4- I do like Top ___ lists. Brahms expert extraordinaire Barney Sherman has a good one going on his website of the best Brahms recordings of the last decade . I completely agree with his choice of Jonathan Pasternack’s bold and thought-provoking First Symphony on Naxos, and I was also pleasantly surprised by Rattle’s BPO cycle in general. I have in my head a post on the best Brahms cycles of all times, and the best Brahms conductors of all time, but in the meantime, check out Barney’s list 5- One thing Brahms was definitely wrong about is the original version of Schumann 4. It was on the radio this week in a rather terrible performance, but even trying to listen with open ears and not worry about the ugly sound and slipshod ensemble, it left me completely unconvinced. It’s not better than the final version- it’s not nearly as good in any way. Composers know when a piece of music is at peace with its material. When it isn’t, they revise (then, or when copyright has expired). That’s what Schumann did with his Fourth. Brahms, Joachim and Clara Schumann were all ambivalent about Schumann’s late work because it reminded them of his final illness. That is completely understandable on a human level, but Brahms’ preference for the manifestly not-quite-finished original version of Schumann 4 is not a mistake anyone else needs to make. As with Sibelius 5, it’s great that there are recordings available of the original so we can learn how a master composer takes a piece from flawed to flawless, but the idea that both versions are equally valid, or worse yet, this idea that the original is somehow better, is complete and total horse-dung. And yes, the orchestration of the revision is better. 6- I’m conducting Brahms 2 tomorrow night in Guildford. Brahms is probably most often compared to Beethoven, and yet I find conducting them almost mirror-image experiences. With Beethoven, I find that my take on the symphonies changes very little from performance to performance or orchestra to orchestra. The challenge is always to try to get that little bit more alive, more together, more articulate, more in tune. In other words, I go into the first rehearsal knowing exactly what I’m aiming for and at the end of the concert, I tend to rate my success or failure on how close I got to that ideal performance. With Brahms, I find that doesn’t happen. Whatever I may be thinking about the piece at home in my study, when I’m with the orchestra, I feel an overpowering imperative to follow my gut. Everything is on the table: tempo, phrasing, rubato, articulation, not only from orchestra to orchestra, but from rehearsal to rehearsal. I think the best Brahms conductors tend to be sophisticated improvisers- Jochum, Furtwangler, Kleiber. Brahms’ letters all point to tasteful flexibility of tempo, and a spontaneous approach to performance as being essential for bringing the music to life. What is interesting is that Brahms music is even more organized, even more rigorous than Beethoven. In Beethoven’s music, his obsession with organization tends to demand that the performer be similarly structured. Often in Beethoven, you have to fight to make a tempo work when it may sound bad at first. Not so in Brahms, where the only right tempo is the one that is right…. right now. In Brahms, the music is even more structured, but the performer has to be in the moment. If you conduct the same Brahms 2 on consecutive nights, at least one of those performances is going to sound contrived or dull. It’s hard to explain just how compelling that inner voice is that says “this needs to be more relaxed tonight” or “move it along” is when I’m conducting. It has at least the authority of Brahms himself on that Central Park bench so many years ago. When Brahms tells you to go to plan B, plan A is just no longer an answer. I’ve also learned that sticking with plan A as I imagined it at home is a recipe for disaster. If you don’t listen to what the music is trying to tell you in Brahms, the music suddenly becomes stilted and wooden. I suppose this experience has made me incredibly suspicious of the recent fashion for trying to replicate performance traditions in the Brahms symphonies based on descriptions of performances that took place over a century ago. Bulow and Steinbach knew better than to try to play a Brahms symphony with the same rubato two nights in a row. They would have found any attempt to recreate a 100 year old tempo nuance as described in words extremely funny. 7- I’m just finishing reading Malcolm MacDonald’s vast Brahms study . What a great book! All of his analysis is interesting and spot on, the biographical detail is vast, interesting and sensitively presented and the book is actually fluid and readable. Every Brahms fan should read it.


Read this article in its entirety on Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium...

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