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CLASSICAL  May 2008

CLASSICAL May 2008

Subject:

Brahms Symphonies on the Piano

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 1 May 2008 09:38:00 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (83 lines)

Johannes Brahms
Four-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 7

*  Symphony #2 in D, op. 73
*  Symphony #3 in F, op. 90

Silke-Thora Matthies & Christian Koehn, piano four-hands
Naxos 8.554822 Total time: 78:35

Summary for the Busy Executive: The familiar, through a new lens.

We tend to forget what people had to go through to hear music, before
the invention of the wax cylinder.  You had two choices: pretty much at
the mercy of the performers, you went to a concert, or you made the music
yourself.  With other causes, like the rise of the middle class and the
lowering of instrument prices due to industrial mass production techniques,
this led to an increase in the number of decent home pianists.  Composers
and music publishers capitalized on this situation quickly.  For the
publisher, piano arrangements of orchestral scores could provide extra
cash, sheet music becoming the rough equivalent of a CD: cheap to produce
and potentially selling thousands of copies.

Brahms, a fairly astute businessman, understood this very well indeed.
He arranged all his major orchestral works either for piano four-hands
or normal piano, as well as contributing original work to the genre.
Furthermore, he published these arrangements in advance of the orchestral
premieres.  By the time of the first full performance, some members of
the audience, at least, had a deep familiarity with the score that comes
with working through the arrangement for days on end.  The age of the
download has given us unprecedented access to music of all eras, but it
has done so, I believe, at a price. We listen less well and with less
understanding.  We've by and large lost the "body-knowledge" of music
where, through practice, it seeps into our muscles and our breathing.
I suspect that not only do most of us not play the piano well enough to
get through these scores, but that we probably don't know two pianists
who can, and if we did, we haven't got a piano in the house.  But we
probably do possess at least two recordings each of these symphonies.
Edison, in my opinion, has much to answer for.

Given that many of us have heard these symphonies many times in many
different performances, does it make sense to have these?  Even though
I've heard better interpretations and can imagine better readings by
different duos, I'd answer yes, if only because you get a radically
different view of these things without their orchestral dress.  It's
like looking at an X-ray.  It presents you with something close to pure
musical thought.  Where too many of us listen to Brahms's orchestra as
melody-cum-accompaniment, the piano forces our attention on the extent
of the genuine counterpoint in that accompaniment.  After Brahms had
received a solid technical grounding in composition and with a couple
of major works to his credit, he put himself through a year's intense
self-study of contrapuntal techniques.  Afterwards, he could do astonishing
things pretty close to Bach's level.  However, also like Bach, he knew
when and how to relax.  This is especially true of the introduction to
the Second, as well as that symphony's rondo-variations interlude.
Incidentally, Matthies and Koehn do much better in the Second than in
the Third (just like practically everybody else).  So although the Third
may be my favorite Brahms symphony - the most characteristic of the
composer, the least haunted by Beethoven, and the most concentrated of
the four - I must admit that, given what they accomplished on the Second,
they disappointed me a bit on the Third.  I can put my dissatisfaction
in this way: they seem to understand the Second, to have it in their
musical grasp, whereas they give the impression of simply reading the
Third.  The rhythmic ambiguity of the first movement, an homage to
Schumann's "Rhenish," often doesn't come through.  The movement exploits
the doubt of triple-time: two groups of three vs.  three groups of two.
It's a device as old as the Renaissance, and Brahms revives it in a big
way in a good deal of his music.  Too often, however, Matthies and Koehn
settle for a pure waltz.

Nevertheless, you owe it to yourself to hear this music with its face
scrubbed.  I, for example, heard stuff in the Third new to me, particularly
the extent of the opening descending phrase throughout the entire work.
Matthies and Koehn don't do terribly and after all deliver a pretty good
Second, one that won't betray your memories of, say, Monteux.  Also,
it's on Naxos, so you can afford to gamble.

Steve Schwartz

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