Musical Musings: Brahms' Symphonies

Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.

-- Johannes Brahms

Very few composers of music, classical or otherwise, can claim to understand the intricacies involved in creating a musical composition; and fewer still can demonstrate their understanding in their repertoire. The latter will find their work dissected ad infinitum by succeeding generations of critics, music students, and amateur hobbyists alike. And then there is the third category of composers, who possess such an innate grasp of the connection between the aesthetic, structural and emotive aspects of their medium, that their work is immediately accessible to critics, fellow musicians, and listeners, informed and novice. Without doubt, I consider Johannes Brahms as a prime example of this third category of musicians whose music can easily appeal to academic and the aesthetic, often at the same time! 

But herein lies the rub of the matter - different individuals have tried to interpret Brahms' works in many different ways. I believe that unlike Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, or Schumann, or Stravinsky - whose work can be readily identified by their musical structures, and is performed with very little (if any) variation once the basic personality of the work has been identified, Brahms, along with Sibelius, Dvorak, Chopin and Vivaldi defies any rigorous definition of style. Sure, the mathematics and the application of musical theory are entirely the brainchild of an individual composer, but looking beyond the notation on the page, the execution is subject to various interpretations by the conductor and the performers, who breath a new life into the notes at every performance.

I have been fascinated by Brahms' Symphonies since my teens - quite unusual for someone whose only interest in music up until that point had been limited to Bollywood oldies and ghazals. Walking into an "upscale" bookshop (Manney's in Pune Camp) to browse expensive books that I could not afford, I happened to pay attention to the music on the PA system and found myself rooted at one spot for over 10 minutes, just taking it in. The person at the customer service counter of course knew nothing about the album, but he helpfully showed me the cover. A rush to my usual cassette shop to get my hands on the album (and another by Beethoven, a composer I had read about someplace...), and as the saying goes, I fell "hook, line and sinker."  

This post is my attempt to collect my thoughts about the various interpretations of Brahms' symphonies that I have heard over the years, and describe what they mean to me. Except in one example, I shall use the First Movement of the 3rd Symphony as an example. It was THE track that I first listened to, all those years ago. I would recommend that you listen with headphones, or other personal listening devices that will cut out the ambient "noise." Enjoy!

Arturo Toscanini - One Baton to Rule Them All! 

Search for "Brahms Symphonies" on any musical forum, and the one name that stands tall above the rest is the Italian, Arturo Toscanini. Known for his acute sense of orchestration and perfectionism, his performances feel complete, well-rounded in terms of arrangement, and convey the grandeur and scale of Brahms' works quite successfully. No one group of instruments seems to overpower the rest, and every section of the orchestra gets a chance to showcase their skills. The mental image that one draws as one listens to his interpretation is the feeling of standing inside an enormous cathedral with the music enveloping you from all directions. Although it may seem an unfortunate set of circumstances that the recordings from his performances are not as high-fidelity as some of the newer conductors, the older monophonic recordings aptly convey the expression that Toscanini intended. 

Herbert von Karajan - The Imperial March!

OK, so I may be a bit biased on this one as this was the track that I heard in Manney's :). Herbert von Karajan, the Austrian conductor, is often regarded as THE conductor of the 20th century. It is true that in terms of sheer influence, no other conductor from the 20th century comes even close to the breadth of repertoire that von Karajan produced over his career. His interpretations of Beethoven's symphonies (especially #5 and #9) are perhaps the most expressive ever. His performances are marked by - brisk tempi (he shaves off about 3 minutes compared to the other performances!), very precise articulation, forceful expression (fortissimo) and a penchant for playing with the beat, that lends most of his symphonic works a color of a marching army. Hear a few of his pieces, and you can identify The Karajan Sound in an unfamiliar piece too! Call it lateral association, but von Karajan's music always reminds me of German engineering and aesthetic -- clean crisp lines, angular faces, polished surface. Something that is fit to be placed on the mantlepiece, but does not quite penetrate the personal space of the listener.

Otto Klemperer - The Emperor 

Without a doubt, Otto Klemperer remains a leading interpreter of Brahms' music from the last century. A contemporary, and competitor, of von Karajan, he is widely considered as the better Brahms' Interpreter among the two (and I agree).  Where von Karajan stands tall with his precision and scope, Klemperer looks inwards, into the soul of the music, and lets the technicalities of arrangement follow suit. Klemperer's interpretations are no less grand, perhaps more so, for they capture the immenseness of the musical landscape in the symphonies, but at the same time, allow Brahms' personality to peek through - a no mean feat when you consider the complexities involved in depicting the composer's personality! A set of recurring images that I associate with Klemperer's Brahms are that of Icarus and Prometheus - the mythical heroes who dared to defy their Gods in their quest to go higher! His music has that defiant yet uplifting quality sorely missing from other conductors. He is, the Emperor, as far as Brahms is concerned!

Thomas Dausgaard - The Delicate Touch

And now for something different. Having heard Dausgaard's particularly emotive rendition of Sibelius' Symphonies and Violin Concerto (live with the Seattle Symphony), I had come away pretty impressed. So I jumped up at the chance to see if he had any works from Brahms in his toolbox. Turned out that there was not a recording of the third that I could find, so I present to you, Exhibit B - Brahm's 1st Symphony, Movement 4. Dausgaard takes a slightly different route to Brahms - instead of expressions of towering intensity that were favored by the conductors from the 20th century, Dausgaard approaches the pieces by almost going back to the times of Brahms! His interpretation is a more mellow, but intimate presentation of the music. He forgoes the militaristic rigidity to the tempo in favor of a more expressive, languid, and (yes) softer technique. It would be quite impossible for any conductor to be completely free of any intense expression that is the hallmark of Brahms' compositions (around 5:30 mark in this piece), and Dausgaard proves his mettle by complementing the softer and intense phrases seamlessly.  

John Eliot Gardiner - Romantic Roots

The first time I heard this piece, after finding good reviews and mentions on forums and blogs, my first reaction went on the lines of - "Whaaaat??" Yes, it IS different, and gloriously so. Intrigued by what many called a "HIP" or "Historically Informed Performance," I did some more research into the entire recording series. And came away amazed, completely amazed! Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the British conductor responsible for the HIP Brahms Cycle (sounds neat, right?) infuses the music with a lively sense of brilliance that would probably have von Karajan and Toscanini turning in their resting places, but something, if academic research and anecdotes are anything to go by, the composer himself would have readily approved. Placing Brahms' works in their contemporaneous context, Gardiner based his interpretations on two important factors (a) the annotations provided by Steinbach, a conductor whose interpretations Brahms himself liked, and (b) Brahms musical inspirations from that era (Chamber music, orchestral and choral work, and some of Brahms' earlier works), even going to the lengths in using instruments that Brahms himself would have preferred over the modern derivatives that are used today. The result is a complete package of musical journey that takes the listener to the heart of the Romantic period. The music has a lyrical, almost ballet-like quality to the expression, and even the supposedly-darkest pieces of Brahms' music display a silver lining under Gardiner's baton!

This is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg where a complex composer and personality like Johannes Brahms is concerned. Hopefully you enjoyed this article and this helps you begin your own exploration into Brahms (or Classical Music!) 

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