Cleveland Orchestra. George Szell (1965/67)
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During his many years as a music critic, Peter Tchaikovsky once laid his finger on the open wound of incomprehension with which many music lovers throughout Europe viewed the work of Johannes Brahms: "For the Russian heart there is something dry, cold, nebulous and repelling about the music of this German master. For us Russians, Brahms lacks every sense of melodic fantasy. The musical thought in Brahms is never completely pronounced. Barely has a melodic phrase been as much as hinted at, it is so overgrown with all kinds of harmonic modulations as if the composer had set himself the task of being incomprehensible and deep whatever the cost |...|. His style is always so lofty |...|, but in everything the most important element of all is missing: beauty!".
Certainly such a judgement has its roots in that "creative misunderstanding" with which composers react to the different aesthetic premises of their colleagues. But it fails to consider that it was simply not Brahms's intention to come up with melodic memorability and general accessibility. There are most certainly in his works traces of serenity, contentedness, caprice and the idyllic, but the dominant element is the elegiac and North German melancholy. His last symphony too, which he gave its first performance on 25 October 1885 with the renowned Meininger court cappella, only seldom leaves the tone of tragic monumentality, and its one-sidedness of expression even evinced the displeasure of people who were close to him artistically. Thus the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick noted after a pre-premiere performance of the first movement in the arrangement for piano for four hands: 'Throughout the whole movement I had the impression of two dreadfully intelligent people beating each other up." And Hugo Wolf, who as a dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian was a fiery opponent of Brahms in the dispute between the "New German School" and the "Conservatives", cavilled after the first performance in Vienna about the "nullity, hollowness and falseness" of the symphony. He was moreover of the opinion that the composer had again proved his "art of composing without ideas".
Precisely this last rebuke of Wolf ignores the dicisive point: Brahm's pioneering method of creating a great form from a thematic core through constant variations was rightly described by Arnold Schoenberg as "developing variation", and Schoenberg indeed saw it as the incitement for his own development of the twelve tone technique. While Schoenberg emphasises the pioneering modernity of Brahms's work, Brahms is generally seen as a preserver of the classical, who took a stand against the dissolution of traditional form. Clarity and economy in the treatment of the form are characteristic of his method of composition. Precisely the Fourth Symphony becomes in addition a highlight of two compositional principles associated with his novel technique of variation and the reversion to old forms.
Although the first movement, which begins in an elegiac ballad tone, betrays a rugged main theme interrupted by breaks, and a rhythmically severely jagged secondary theme in the wind instruments and a development marked by hefty eruptions, it has its sole source in the seven thirds of the beginning. In their original falling figure and in their reversal as sixth, they form the core of the whole. A great richness of harmony and timbre provides in the second movement on the motif played by the horns with the contrast of phrygian and clear E major for the change from austerity and fervour, shade and light. The acquaintance of Brahms, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, felt the cello cantilene especially, whose first six notes represent a rhythmic reshaping of the soft clarinet theme, as a benediction: "It is like walking through an ideal landscape at sunset, the tone becoming ever warmer, more and more purple - when the second theme in E major returns, we see ourselves blessed and give you thanks." - With the noisy beginning and unusually instrumented C major scherzo in 2/4 time, which is characterised by stark blocks of chords and brusque countrerhythms, Brahms protected himself as it were against the great emphasis that had gone before. He erected a yet stronger dam against an excess of romantic feeling with the finale, which is without parallel in his whole work for the rigour of its movement technique. It grows from a eight-bar theme that sounds as if sculptured (Brahms took it from the Bach cantata BWV 150 "Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich") and returns with the following thirty variations to the baroque genre of the chaconne or passacaglia. The movement surpasses the ostinato movements of the 17th and 18th century through the grandiose formal conception which oversees the whole. In a constructed exposition of the sonata form, the first eleven variations call to mind the energetic main theme, and the following four variations are reminiscent of the lyrical side thought. After the excited "development" (variations 16-22), variations Nos. 23-25 lead back to the beginning and thus mark the "recapitulation" of a movement, which in its uncompromising rigour of form stands before the listener like an erratic block and pushes him to the impotence of incompre-hension.
When in 1879 Brahms reacted to the award of an honorary doctorate by the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Breslau with only a few lines of thanks, friends pointed out to him that this was discourteous. In 1880 he wrote in Bad Ischl, together with the "Tragic Overture", now also the "Academic Festival Overture" and conducted it himself in January 1881. In a classical sonata form, which opens in an unfriendly, resentful tone, he subjects the popular student songs "Ich hab mich ergeben" "Der Landesvater" and "Was kommt dort von der Hoh'" to artistically contrapuntal treatment and crowns the boisterous "Potpourri a la Suppe" (Brahms) with the "Gaudeamus igitur", ironically infused with pathos.
The "Tragic Overture", which is also in sonata form and was composed as a serious counterpart to the "Festival Overture", may have been intended as a prelude to a play dealing more with the shaping of a transcendental destiny than personal drama. The tragic element lies "in the oppressive loneliness of dreadful and demonic silences and 'dead points'" (Niemann). The work radiates an inconsolability which lends no place to softer moods and makes it seem one of the composer's most brittle.
-Uwe Kraemer (translation: Paul Gregory)