If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.
I am excited to be performing repertory for two pianos with the wonderful pianist and now colleague at Simon’s Rock, Manon Hutton-DeWys. We will be matching our trusty Steinway B (on the left in the picture) in Kellogg with a newly acquired Mason and Hamlin BB (on the right) to present great compositions that exploit the medium of piano duo, in sonority somewhere between solo piano and full orchestra. Our varied program includes Brahms’s Sonata, an alternate version of the great Piano Quintet in F minor; Debussy’s late, dramatic “En Blanc et Noir” composed during World War I, with poignant expressions of French patriotism; Stravinsky’s spare, neoclassical Sonata, and Copland’s joyful “Danzon Cubano.” We invite you to celebrate Labor Day weekend with us on Saturday, September 1 at 7:30.
Brahms’ Fourth must stand with a very small handful of other works at the apex of symphonic composition. It represents the essence of “symphonism,” that is, the use of the fully developed romantic orchestra as a unified, full-throated body expressing a completely coherent and integrated musical discourse, in serious purpose comparable to great works of philosophical thought. It is difficult not to think in philosophical terms when encountering this work, especially as performed by the TMC Orchestra under the hands of nonagenarian Herbert Blomstedt, whose control over the flow of such expansive structures is notable among today’s conductors. Words like “austere,” “severe,” “dark,” and “stern” appear regularly in the literature to warn listeners that they are in for a challenging experience with this symphony. One could add “sustained,” “coherent,” “integrated,” “interconnected,” “deeply moving” and, finally, “tragic.” There are few other symphonies that insist on the minor modality to the bitter end: Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 (“La Passione”), Mahler’s Sixth (“Tragic”), and Vaughan-Williams’ Fourth and Sixth may be the best-known examples, and only Haydn displays the same structural necessity and lack of ambivalence about such a conclusion as Brahms.
If you ever wondered who stole a Paderewski Prize from under the nose of Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony, here is the culprit, and here is the work that did it. It’s better than you think. Gardner Read (1913-2005) seems to have been one of those composers who wins competitions and gets punished by history for it. His music skirts the wild edges of the safe and known. Dismissed by Copland as “too romantic,” Read has largely been forgotten.You can find three of his symphonies on YouTube. But although the composer lived until his nineties in Manchester-by-the Sea, Massachusetts, I had never heard a note of his music before curiosity about the Second Symphony drove me to the bizarrely wonderful and nightmarish work it turned out to be.
Here is really lovely Dvořák: fresh and natural, gorgeously recorded—and with something new to say. That’s rare for the symphony, which has been captured for presumed immortality by every orchestra on earth—and dutifully miked from nearly every row in every concert house. There’s a New World for every taste in approach and sonic perspective.
This is a gleaming, sleek, satiny reading of the symphony, sensitive and appealingly refined, set midway back with none of the “E-Minor rasp” that can make brass chords overbearing and the music blatty. It also features light-as-a-feather winds and some of the most breath-stopping quiet string playing you will ever encounter. Krzysztof Urbański achieves a haunting effect at the end of the slow movement, where the music barely breathes. He has the strings move away from each other as they play, until they are at opposite ends of the stage, evanescing into the distance along with the notes they play.