Monday, 26 September 2016

An anti-historicist symphony

On YouTube a remarkable performance can be heard (and seen) of Brahms II by the Vienna Philharmonic under Carlos Kleiber:

This is, to me, the definitive way of performing this admirable work: never ponderous or slick, but flowing and floating, and the tutti's substantial, forceful, but not heavy. Kleiber conducts the music as if he had written it himself..... knowing every corner of the score and especially, its meaning.

This symphony demonstrates something peculiar and important: the music sounds entirely fresh, youthful, expressive, but the language is close to Beethoven and Schubert. They lived and worked half a century earlier: this work is from 1877, being written a year after Wagner's Ring received its world première in 1876 in Bayreuth, and some twenty years after Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the work which uses the most 'advanced' musical language of its time, and fourty years after Belioz' Symphonie Phantastique (1830), this outburst of wild genius, with an utmost daring structural complexity and freedom in the first movement, predating the late romanticism of Strauss and Mahler with some 70 years. Although the musical language of the Brahms symphony is handled in a personal way, and is - for us - easily recognizable as Brahms', the grammar is exactly the same as the two Viennese composers in the 18twenties, from which Brahms learned a lot. He did not add a single new idea to the language as such, but the way in which he uses the influences, is entirely personal: he does not imitate Beethoven's heroism and symphonic counterpoint, or Schubert's floating lyricism, but shows that he can do his own version of these things, filtering them through his own perceptive framework, and they can stand next to the examples without blushing. Which shows that extensions of the possibilities of the musical language have nothing to do with musical quality, and that a historicist interpretation of music history has no artistic value.

Also quite remarkable: the scoring of this symphony is complex and refined, but does not use the colourful palette of instrumental effects as they were enthusiastically explored and cultivated by most composers of the time. The purity, warmth and clarity of the textures are entirely arrived at through voice leading and careful distribution of lines, spaces and masses. Brahms did not need the richness of the romantic instrumentation, and strove after purity, and simplicity, which can also be heard in the character of the themes and motives, which are much more simple - almost bare - when compared to Beethoven's.

Brahms wrote his 'pastoral' symphony within one year, with the greatest ease, after the experience that his first symphony - which had a gestation period of some 15 years - had turned out, after all, as a success, which gave him the confidence to trust his instincts. But surely he could not have written his 2nd, 3rd and 4th if he had not wrestled with his 1st so long and especially, with Beethoven's symphonic shadow.

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