Musical Musings: Brahms S4 @ Seattle Symphony

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.

-- Johannes Brahms, discussing Bach's Partita for Violin #2

Imagine you are holding in your hand, something complex, beautiful and intricate, that forms an integral part of your understanding of the world around you. It does not matter what this thing is, what matters is its inherent intricacy, your familiarity, and your mutual intimacy. It is your most familiar, your guide, your steadfast companion, and you think you know it like your own heart. Now imagine someone comes up to you, takes this thing from your hands, and slowly, deliberately, unravels it in a totally unexpected fashion. This is not a 'picking apart,' it is an unrolling of the article layer-after-layer. This is not a brutish destruction of that what you hold dearest, but a gentle introduction to the inner workings of the complicated machinery. The first encounter with this displaced familiar is disorienting, but as you realize what you are being shown, you soon begin to appreciate the unconventional presentation, and before long, you are extrapolating the familiar from within this unfamiliar landscape, much to your own delight!

Such can I describe my encounter with David Zinman's interpretation of Brahms Fourth Symphony, played by the Seattle Symphony. Brahms symphonies are arguably his best-known works, and although he produced 'only' four (when compared to the body of work of other famous composers), they are some of the best examples of music composed by Man, then and now. The intensity of Brahms' symphonies is instantly personal, while their scope and arrangement can only be described as epic. Several distinguished conductors have taken their baton to the difficult task of interpreting Brahms' symphonies through their personal lens (more here).  Although their approaches vary from the lyrical (Gardiner) to militaristic (Karajan) to emotive (Klemperor), one common thread that runs through all the performances discussed earlier is the intensity of expression - whether through time (brisk) or dynamics (fortissimo). Zinman's interpretations are a deviation from this norm, wild, but utterly beautiful!

If one had to use an economy of expression to describe Zinman's interpretations, I would describe his approach with the phrase - 'stately or regal.' Under Zinman's arrangement, the symphony moves away from the conventional interpretation of Brahms as a tortured individual, to Brahms as a superlative composer who weaved an intricate tapestry of sounds that were beautiful on their own merit. His approach is leisurely, yet not nonchalant. It reminds one of a royal procession, a caravan making its way through a golden, shifting landscape; a definite rhythm that speaks of the journey, but makes no mention of the port of call (First minute in the first movement, or starting from 8:43 in the same track, the Second Movement in its entirety.)

As mentioned earlier, the music is a deliberate exercise in unraveling the relationships between individual instrument groups. With his slower tempi, targeted exposition, and a near-perfect balance of dynamics, Zinman and the sound-stage at Benaroya Hall created a 3D landscape of music where one could pick up individual lines and see how they all fit together. This is a very unusual, restrained approach to Brahms, where the usual urge is to equate the intensity with loudness. Once the initial shock of the languid gait had subsided, I found myself completely immersed in the music, anticipating how the once-familiar turns in the path were to meet anew!

The concert was a refreshing encounter with an old familiar that allowed me to see the music with a completely new set of eyes!
( Cover painting for this post can be found here. For me, Brahms S4 is forever, a landscape of rusty orange and golden hues -- a desert sunset perhaps, or an autumn eve over a golden prairie?)