Thursday, July 19, 2018

Summermusic 2018: The Retiring Brahms

What: Summermusic 2018's 2nd Concert with String Quintets of Mozart & Brahms.
When: Sunday, July 22nd, 2018, at 4pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church on Market Square in downtown Harrisburg PA
Who: Violinists Peter Sirotin & Leonid Ferents; Violists Michael Stepniak & Blanka Bednarz; and Cellist Cheung Chau.

Johannes Brahms
Our usual image of Brahms is the Old Man with the dark clothes, overweight, a long flowing white beard – oh, and don't forget the cigar. One of the adjectives often coming to mind, whatever you think of his music, might be “stolid.”

Try this image on for size: it is an evening in 1890 and Brahms is with friends at a tavern in Vienna's Prater (a park set aside by Emperor Joseph II in 1766 for public amusement and a home to many taverns and places of popular entertainment and, in 1873, a World's Fair) and the tavern's band was playing that latest American hit, “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!” As the musicians would slow up on the “ta-ra-ra...” leading into the refrain, drawing out the tension of anticipation (speaking of expectations), it was customary for listeners to thump the tables with their beer mugs on the boom! of “boom-de-ay!” Viennese music critic Max Graf recorded his watching Brahms, sitting there, whacking their table with his umbrella, “beaming with beer and high spirits... like a boy.”

When a bunch of Brahms' friends heard the first rehearsal for his new String Quintet in G Major that November, his friend Max Kalbeck was the one who blurted out after its whirlwind finale, “Brahms in the Prater!” To which the composer replied “You've got it!” then added, “and all the pretty girls, there, eh?”

Here's a little fact for you: when Mozart was writing his G Minor String Quintet in 1787, he had just – and I mean just – moved to a new apartment in the Landstrasse suburb of Vienna – or what was then a suburb – which happens to be right next to the Prater! Small world!
Vienna with the Prater District (outlined) and the Landstrasse District

That's the program for the second program of Market Square Concerts' “Summermusic 2018” this Sunday at 4pm at Market Square Church – no beer or roller coasters, alas, but plenty of great music and with the breathless ending of Brahms' quintet, who needs a roller coaster?

To find out more about Mozart's quintet and hear a performance by the Emerson Quartet (with guest violist Kim Kashkashian), you can read my previous blog-post here.

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After viewing several YouTube Videos “lacking” either in interpretation, sound or visual quality (too bland; recording too tinny; Joshua Bell breaking out into a sweat by bar 5), I'm going to go with this one even though I have no idea who the uncredited performers are (I'm pretty sure the 1st violinist is Cho-Liang Lin and the cellist is Jian Wang) but their performance, I find, is breathtaking:

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For those who want to get into more technical detail, here's a presentation with the score that features comments by David Goza – who styles himself “The Atheist Codger” (as opposed to Dickens' “The Artful Dodger”), someone any curmudgeon going by the persona of Dr. Dick would support – and a performance by members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet:

(to view directly (and largely) on YouTube, click here.)
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The work is in the four usual movements: the first movement, Allegro con spirito (“Lively, with spirit”), opens with a hopefully brilliant blaze of glory, assuming the lone cellist can stand up against his four colleagues sawing away on their undulating sunshine at full volume. It is this very opening which his friends thought needed to be changed: Joachim said it would take “three cellos” to be heard over that, and it was recommended Brahms tone it down a bit. And true to fashion, just as he did with so many of Joachim's suggestions to improve the Violin Concerto of 1878, Brahms ignored everybody and left it as he'd originally written it. It is a powerful effect but a bow-busting challenge to achieve the right balance.

Brahms (1890)
(Once, when Brahms was playing his 1st Cello Sonata with his friend and amateur cellist to whom he'd dedicated it, Brahms played so loudly, the cellist complained he couldn't hear himself play. Brahms grumbled back at him, “Lucky for you, too” and continued without adjusting the volume. I've also heard this with the simple response, “Good!” but then Brahms was often a sort of Grumpy Cat according to many of his friends, speaking of curmudgeons.)

As this opening movement progresses, we hear a great variety of contrast wafting by: the lilting, laid-back Viennese tune of the second theme-group (more than one memorable tune) before everything slides off into a dramatic and conflict-filled development section despite all the sunshine and lilting qualities of the main themes. Occasionally a fragment of one of the themes will peak out from behind the thunderclouds even after we've officially returned to the Recapitulation. But before we reach the expected conclusion – again, those expectations – he turns what in Mozart would've been a fairly simple “coda” (literally, a “tail”) into a second development section, a common habit of the 19th Century romanticists after Beethoven who found it a convenient way to prolong the conflict and add length (and tension) to the traditional Sonata-Allegro Form (“I'll take Expanding Traditional Musical Forms for 400, Alex...”).

The middle movements, as often with Brahms, are emotional contrasts as much in scope as in introspection. While his outer movements (whether in symphonies or his chamber music) tend to be large, open, and public, the inner movements are often more “interior,” personal, and perhaps retrospective or nostalgic. It is these qualities, particularly in his later pieces – this is, after all, Op.111 – that earn him the frequent adjective, “autumnal.”

The Adagio is perhaps mournful – D Minor was for Brahms a “tragic” key – dominated by the viola sonority (generally considered darker, compared to the violin), despite ultimately cadencing on a wistful D Major chord. The third movement, the place for the traditional minuet or scherzo, is here more of an intermezzo, again typical of Brahms: a gentle dance in G Minor contrasts with a softly swaying, “countrified” waltz – in Schubert's day, it was called a Ländler – and there's something that evokes the world of Schubert and, to an extent Dvořák, in this middle section, the “trio” of the third movement, especially when it's hinted at at the very end (one of those delicious moments when you realize not everything unexpected has to be dramatic).

Brahms & the "Red Hedgehog"
With the finale – Allegro vivace – we're back in the public world: keep in mind Brahms' reaction to his friend's comment, “Brahms in the Prater!” While there's no sign of Tamara Boomdier, it's a night on the town listening to a gypsy band – the Viennese equivalent of a New York pub-crawl through smoky jazz dives. In spite of an again dramatic development section (this is not just pure entertainment) which threatens to turn into a fugue (that most academic of musical procedures), everybody finally just kicks the tables back and starts to dance. Small wonder the official premiere created “a sensation.”

(This famous silhouette, btw, is code to show Brahms strolling off to Zum Roten Igel, the "Red Hedgehog," his favorite tavern!)

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So you might wonder, after hearing that ending, why Brahms went into this with the conviction it would be his last piece? It was his intention as he told his friends and his publisher he was going to retire after this. What, given this quintet, would make a composer think he'd written himself out?

As with any artistic nature – and the nature of artistic talent – this is not a decision one makes easily. Of course, there are those who keep plugging along, unaware each new work they produce is no match for earlier successes. Others make the bold decision to go out on a high note rather than wait to be told it's time to give it up. Sometimes it's for reasons of health or the realization that it's not fun any more or that it's become too much work.

Besides, while ideas became harder to come up with, the response from his friends, not just the public, following his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto was disappointing. He began many new works he never finished.

Brahms (1890) & a friend
While on one last holiday in Italy, his seventh – an earlier one proved inspirational for the finale of his 2nd Piano Concerto – Brahms sketched some ideas for at least one new symphony. There may have been two, but one of them got far enough along he could play it on the piano for his friend (and frequent traveling companion) Theodore Billroth. Whatever the response was, Brahms, ever the perfectionist, destroyed it. Kalbeck, who'd heard the quintet's first rehearsal, assumed the opening of the quintet was originally meant to be the opening of a symphony. Imagine that becoming Brahms' 5th!

Before leaving for Italy, Brahms was having dinner with some friends when the great violinist Joachim “put in an order” for a new piece: “What shall we have next,” he asked, “a new quintet! We have one” – the F Major Quintet, Op.88, written eight years earlier – “a very fine one; let's have another.”

When Brahms returned from Italy, he headed for the village of Bad Ischl, not far from Salzburg and one of his frequent destinations to spend a summer composing before returning to the city and a winter spent performing and touring. There, he conjured up the G Major Quintet just as Joachim asked.

But it had become a time when he realized how music was moving into the future and Brahms, ever the conservative in an age of the avant-garde of Wagner and Liszt, found himself becoming increasingly irrelevant and so he decided he'd worked hard all his life and now it was time to sit back on his laurels and enjoy his retirement.

He was 57.


Fortunately for us (and especially for clarinetists everywhere) he met Richard Mühlfeld whose clarinet-playing would bring The Old Man out of retirement for a Clarinet Quintet, a Clarinet Trio, and two Clarinet Sonatas - but that's another chapter.

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Now, each work on the first program of this summer's Summermusic was connected by the time all three piano quartets were composed: between 1874 and 1878 (though officially Fauré added a new finale to his quartet in 1884).

The second program's works might be connected by their location, though over 100 years separated them: Mozart lived in the Landstrasse district of then suburban Vienna when he composed his G Minor String Quintet; and the mood of the Prater, just next door to the Landstrasse district, permeates the finale of Brahms String Quintet in G Major.

The third program consists of two works by Russian composers: Sergei Taneyev was a student of Tchaikovsky's and the two shared a long and productive friendship until Tchaikovsky died in 1893.

But there's also a connection to this program: while Brahms' Quintet was ostensibly a souvenir of a trip to Italy, Tchaikovsky's String Sextet is usually referred to by its subtitle, “Souvenir of Florence.” It was not so much the musical equivalent of holiday snapshots – there's the Capriccio Italien for that – but I'll tell you about that in the next post.

Oh, and I'll also tell you about a very icy dinner in which poor Mrs. Edvard Grieg couldn't stand the tension while sitting between Brahms on one side and Tchaikovsky on the other.

- Dick Strawser

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