The orchestral output of Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) includes just four symphonies, but those four rank among the cornerstones of the repertoire. Brahms waited a while before staking his claim: he began sketches for the First Symphony in 1876, some fifteen years before he completed it and allowed its first performances. Once the die was irrevocably cast, three more symphonies followed, over a period of just nine years.
Why the delay? Here’s something you may not have known about concert life in Brahms’s day: by the time he was twenty, more than half the music being played in orchestra concerts was by dead composers. By the time he was forty, the proportion had become greater than 75%. (Thanks to J. Peter Burkholder and “Grout 8” for these statistics.) Audiences wanted to hear the classics, which to them meant Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, with maybe a little Spohr offered as a novelty. So younger composers were faced with the choice of throwing in with the radicals—Wagner, Liszt, and their followers in the New German movement—or else accommodating concertgoers’ established tastes. Not a radical by nature, Brahms took the latter path. (To some extent, this dilemma is still present for today’s composers; I explored it briefly in last month’s column.)
With the symphony, Brahms was conscious of the high standard set by his predecessors, especially Beethoven. “You have no idea,” he said, “what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you all the time.” He saw his task as twofold: first, to demonstrate command of the medium equal to that of his great forebears; second, to offer something new that set him apart from those same masters of the repertoire.
It is partly the ambivalence underlying this twofold charge that makes Brahms’s music an almost irresistible object of performers’ desires to re-create it, complete it, underline its message. Musicians simply cannot help themselves. They must get in there and mess about, or else the audience may not “get it.”
Of course, such messing about is a common and absolutely necessary feature of most music-making, and of Romantic performance especially. As a conductor of his own music, Brahms himself subscribed to the contemporary practice of making subtle, continuous tempo changes as a means of realizing a work’s full expressive potential. (He even indicated such variations in his conducting scores—but took care to erase the penciled indications before sending on scores to his publisher.)
Beyond those typical practices lie factors that make Brahms’s music even more susceptible to performerly intervention than that of his peers. Chief among those traits may be a Beethovenesque reliance on continuous motivic development. Brahms’s musical building blocks—motives and themes, rhythms and textures—are often simple, like Beethoven’s. It’s the way they are used that makes the music exciting. Like Beethoven, Brahms continually develops, combines, and transforms his elemental materials in order to build a compelling narrative. In their zeal to emphasize or clarify points in the narrative—also to make it their own and add some spontaneity—performers incorporate further, interpretive twists. Brahms’s emotional reserve and customary chariness with expressive markings seem to encourage that. He just didn’t add enough commas and exclamation points, the argument goes. The audience won’t feel the full impact of this music unless we fix it!
In general, the tendency in Brahms performance over the past century has been toward increased “weight” and slower tempos. That approach provides an easy way of making the music seem more profound (or of bringing out its inherent profundity, if you prefer). The drive to weight was also an inevitable consequence of the gradual enlarging of professional orchestras since Brahms’s time; this weight gain took place largely in the string sections. A larger orchestra usually cannot play as fast as a smaller one without sacrificing precision. But they can play louder: the strings can add a certain heft to key phrases, or attacks, or cadences, once there are 10 or 12 of them in a section instead of 6. And they can play just as softly as a smaller number if they have to.
Eventually, a reaction to all that Big and Slow set in. Having conquered Bach, Mozart, and Berlioz, the revisionists began to take on Brahms. The rationale for their revisions was the eternal performers’ need—to emphasize, to clarify, to personalize. Oh, and to return to the “authentic” performance practice of Brahms’s time, certainly! (Warning: sarcasm.) I’m thinking right now about the symphony sets from Sir Roger Norrington (1991–96; 2005) and Sir Charles Mackerras (1997). In his first set, Norrington used a small orchestra with so-called early instruments and adopted a number of Historically Informed Performance (HIP) mannerisms—vibrato-free violins, attenuated long notes, etc.—to mixed results. Less radically, Mackerras used the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to approximate the size of the 49-member Meiningen Court Orchestra, associated with early performances of most of the Brahms symphonies. He adopted the Meiningen violin layout (i.e., seconds to the conductor’s right), but otherwise showed little interest in the wholesale adoption of formulas from the HIP recipe book. (The Mackerras collection has occupied a secure spot on my shelves since its release, and I will sample from it below. You might also enjoy reading Bernard Sherman’s detailed, authoritative review of Mackerras’s Brahms.)
Now an important new set of the Brahms symphonies has arrived, from a conductor mainly associated with the HIP crowd. The results are not what you’d expect. Andrew Manze’s entry into the Brahms Symphony discography, with the 61-piece Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra (cpo 777 720-2), is a triumphant, gorgeously recorded traversal of these masterworks that provides a fresh view of them without trampling underfoot all our cherished notions about Romantic beauty and truth. Rather, Manze gives us recognizable Brahms in which youthful vigor gets more of an emphasis. The debut of this new recording has prompted me to revisit the issues described above, because it offers further evidence of what works and what doesn’t in Brahms performance.
Let’s begin with tempo. Generally, HIP has resulted in faster tempos for Baroque and Classical music. In spite of the occasional quibble over extreme cases, this is often a good thing. The same holds true for HIP Brahms, if we can call it that. Faster tempos generate more energy, for starters: everyone from Johann Joachim Quantz to Sid Vicious has experienced the thrill that comes with playing something faster, not to mention the greater difficulty of sustaining a phrase or a mood at a slow tempo. Here’s a related and possibly more important phenomenon: fast tempos usually encourage performers to think in longer units, and they allow listeners to hear and understand music in terms of longer units as well.
A while ago conductor Benjamin Zander gave a terrific TED Talk at Aspen about the relationships between tempo, basic pulse, and thinking/hearing in longer units. Zander is such a persuasive speaker that I encourage you to watch his entire presentation, even though you’ll get most of what you need from the first three or four minutes:
Skipped it? Here’s what you missed (or you can skip this paragraph): beginning at 1’22” Zander plays five versions of the same little Mozart sonata movement. But in each successive version, he plays slightly faster, while decreasing the number of heavy impulses per measure. So, in the first version (“a 7-year-old child”), each note in the left-hand accompaniment figure is stressed. In the second (“an 8-year-old child”), only the metric pulses, i.e., about half as many notes, are stressed. In the third, only the downbeats, i.e., again half as many notes as before, and so forth. Finally Zander delivers a smoothly flowing, graceful rendition in which entire phrases remain airborne, freed through “impulse reduction” from their earthbound captivity.
Thanks to the vast recorded archive of Brahms’s music, we can investigate the same phenomenon in performances of the symphonies. Here, for example, are the brass-chorale variations in the middle section of the finale of the Fourth Symphony. If you click on each of the clips below, you will hear four performances of these variations from four quite different recordings. Which present the music in the longest units (i.e., smoothest, most continuous phrases), and why? How much does tempo have to do with it, and what part is played by other tricks of musicianship?
This is more subtle than Zander—no 7-year-olds at work here! In case you’re interested, the first clip was from Sergiu Celibidache, criticized during his lifetime for slow tempos; the next was from Manze and the Helsingborg Symphony; the third from Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1969 recording with the Chicago Symphony; and the last from Arturo Toscanini, 1951.
It’s not surprising that Celibidache emphasized the pulse of each beat, or that Toscanini more strictly maintained Brahms’s tempo marking for the movement, which is (ahem) Allegro energico e passionato. Toscanini often boasted of his fidelity to the score, and Brahms doesn’t alter the tempo indication until m. 253—very near the end—where he asks for Più Allegro. Nevertheless, nearly everyone who performs this work slows down at least a bit in the gentle middle section of the movement. Brahms the conductor probably did too.
More surprising is Giulini’s way of urging things along, which is to anticipate sometimes the third beat, sometimes the downbeat of the measure slightly. And still more surprising, to some of us, will be Manze’s relaxed, expressive legato here, complete with very soulful linking phrases from solo horn and flute. Clearly Manze is not bound to any recipe-book ideas about “authentic” performance. For him, the most authentic performance of this moment in this Brahms symphony is not all that different from what Giulini and Kleiber and lots of other good conductors have done.
But this may not be the moment that provides the best test. How about the opening of the First Symphony, with its famous eighth-note timpani strokes of—what? Is the solemn introduction, unique among Brahms’s symphonic first movements, meant to portend overwhelming odds, enormous potential for tragedy? Or should it rather emphasize urgency and gathering energy within a threatening (i.e., C-minor) situation? Conductors have traditionally made a meal of it. Here is how the prelude began when Karajan recorded the First in 1964:
And here is what Manze offers:
Even though the Karajan recording was my reference disc for many years, I have been won over by Manze’s approach. For one thing, his tempo brings out the relationship between the sustained chromatic ascending motive in the introduction and the primary motivic material (daaaaah, dah, dah!) that follows in the Allegro proper—it helps us hear the connection. Also, we’re reminded that even the very beginning is in 6/8 meter—another emblem of unity between introduction and first-theme area. Finally, the quicker tempo shaves thirty years off the age of the “hero” of this narrative. Now we can sense that the man telling this story is still youthful, still capable of a grand adventure not so weighted with ominous portent that he is nearly doomed before he sets out. (I know that last part may sound fanciful, but when dealing with Romantic music, why not get fully with the program?)
The evidence from Brahms’s own scores also implies a quicker tempo. His original marking for the prelude was Sostenuto, but he changed that to Un poco sostenuto before publishing the score, so that conductors wouldn’t get the wrong idea (which they did anyway). At the very end of the movement, when the solemn themes return in something like the form used in the prelude, Brahms changed his tempo marking from Un poco sostenuto to Meno Allegro. He was afraid the original marking would—again—give conductors the wrong idea. Don’t slow down a lot, he was saying. The audience should hear the connection with the prelude, but this is not the prelude! (Stuff has happened; the first-movement narrative has made a simple return to the solemn beginning impossible, even absurd.) This constellation of tempo markings, including the history of their alterations, also suggests that Brahms had no interest in strict or “proportional” interpretations of the tempo relationship between slow prelude and Allegro main theme. In other music, when he wanted a proportional relationship (e.g., eighth note equals dotted quarter), he indicated just that.
So Manze also scores points for historical accuracy. His HIP fans will be happy about that. The rest of us will simply revel in the overall dynamism of these interpretations, their sheer delight in flow. Here’s another comparative snippet that shows Manze and company off to their advantage. It’s the scherzo from the Fourth Symphony, marked Allegro giocoso. First, Giulini and Chicago, 1969:
I’m very fond of that performance. In spite of their bulk, the 100-plus players of the CSO manage a fair amount of “lively” and “jocular” expression. But now listen to Manze and his much smaller band:
It’s not just tempo, is it? It’s the chamber-like delicacy of a smaller group, the ensemble precision they maintain, emphasized by the faster playing speed. Altogether, these factors change (reveal?) the basic nature of the piece. They make possible a true lightheartedness belying the old saw that Brahms never wrote a true scherzo, a real “dance movement” in his symphonies. Ha!
Now let’s deal—briefly—with dynamics. I have referenced the overall dynamism of Manze’s performances. He lets things flow, which means they can also dynamically build and decay with fewer fits and starts. His relatively unfussy approach to dynamic markings helps enormously. But occasionally one does feel let down by Manze’s choices. For me such a passage occurs in the first movement of the Fourth, right where Brahms extends the perorations of his opening theme by insisting that the strings continue on to a more emphatic rounding-off theme, a fanfare motive given out by the winds. I am going to show you the score at this point, because its notated dynamic indications are significant:
Note that Brahms writes a forte at m. 44, and another at m. 45, and still another at m. 49, and at m. 53. Strictly speaking, there’s no need for all these forte markings. In most cases, the instruments are already playing at forte level, and often if not always the forte is marked following a crescendo, which would itself imply a strong dynamic. Brahms drops in these extra fortes for emphasis, to urge the players to redouble their efforts. Don’t let up yet, he is saying. Keep at it. Listen to Giulini and the Chicagoans again (they reach the score excerpt at 1’11″):
Now here are the Helsingborg forces covering the same ground:
That last passage is a bit of a letdown, isn’t it? At mm. 45 and 49, the wind goes out of their sails. In a sense, this was predictable. Prior to m. 45, most of the orchestra had been playing; then the winds dropped out. Brahms seems to have anticipated the resultant sag, and he obviously didn’t want the energy to depart with the winds—hence the otherwise superfluous forte markings in the string parts. He seems to have been urging them to continue their passionate contribution. So the Helsingborg strings’ sweetness comes as a disappointment. But is this related to the relative size of the string sections? Is it really a balance issue in disguise?
In any case, my complaint here needs to be placed in context. Manze gets so many things just right, including dynamics, that it’s ultimately unfair to pick at the few places that—in my opinion—don’t quite work. Even in this movement, the Helsingborgers often score points because of size and balance. At mm. 17–18 (0’29-30″), for example, there’s a touching dissonance introduced between first violins (on a B) and first oboe (soaring to a C natural) that’s buried in most big-band recordings of this work. On Manze’s, it comes through clearly, in part because he doesn’t have 12 first violins drowning out the oboe.
Dynamics can be a strange issue when it comes to recording an orchestra. A case in point is the wonderful slow movement of the Fourth. It begins with a strong, slightly menacing statement of the theme from the horns, supported by all the woodwinds except the clarinets. Then the clarinets enter, pianissimo, with a cool, distant, somewhat mysterious restatement that sets the mood for the movement. Brahms was very good at this sort of thing; it’s one of his signature effects.
Now, any professional clarinetist will tell you that the pianissimo marked in m. 4 is an illusion. The clarinets, who are capable of playing more softly than any other instrument in the orchestra, can’t produce an actual pianissimo here or they won’t be heard. For one thing, they are playing this passage over sustained notes from two bassoons, whose dynamic range is much more limited (i.e., they can’t play as softly). For another, they’ve got to project whatever they play to the very back of the hall. So their task is to offer the illusion of a pianissimo.
Recording engineers usually help out with such things by establishing a “hall perspective,” i.e., by setting mics to give listeners the sense of how the piece would sound from, say, the 10th row of seats. This perspective is achieved partly through the contributions of the hall’s acoustic but also from an overall sense of the orchestra’s size and weight (in m. 5 the entire string section begins to accompany the clarinets, pianissimo and pizzicato, providing a context within which the clarinets’ sound is judged). Thus an acceptable sensation of relative dynamics, similar to that experienced by the concertgoer, can be created.
In chamber-music recordings the perspective is often closer to the performers, and that is the case with the Manze Brahms set. This contributes to overall dynamism and immediacy, color and power, but it pretty much eliminates the possibility that Brahms’s cool, mysterious clarinets in the slow movement of the Fourth will register with their full effect. Listen to the subtle but important differences between Mackerras’s reading of this movement—also done with a chamber orchestra, mind you—and Manze’s. First, some of the Mackerras:
As you can hear, lovely things happen in the Manze performance. But a true pianissimo for the clarinets is not one of them. By the way, the volatile, gripping performance that Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra give this movement make it one of the highlights of that set (which also contains a fair number of pedestrian moments) and that’s why I chose this excerpt to match off against Manze.
We’re absolutely out of space now. I hope this will already have convinced you to get a copy of the new Manze recordings. Prepare yourself for a refreshing journey back into Brahms. Cleansed of a century’s accumulated grime and retouching, he may seem younger than the composer you remember. But he’s still recognizable as one of the great Romantics.
Recordings referenced in this essay:
Brahms: Symphonies. [Also: Haydn Variations op. 56a; Tragic Overture op. 81; Academic Festival Overture op. 80.] Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze cond. cpo 777 720-2, 2012; 3 SACD/CDs. Torbjörn Samuelsson, engineer; Lennart Dehn and Burkhard Schmilgun, producers.
Brahms: The Four Symphonies in the Style of the Original Meiningen Performances. [Also: Academic Festival Overture op. 80; Haydn Variations op. 56a.] Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras cond. Telarc CD-80450, 1997; 3 CDs. Jack Renner and Tony Faulkner, engineers; James Mallinson and Robert Woods, producers.
Carlo Maria Giulini. The Chicago Recordings. [Mahler: Symphony No. 1; Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet Orchestral Music; Beethoven: Symphony No. 7; Bruckner: Symphony No. 9; Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Stravinsky: Firebird and Petrushka Suites.] Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Giulini cond. EMI Classics 7243 5 85974 2 4, 2005; 4 CDs.
Brahms: Symphony No. 1. [Also: Schumann: Symphony No. 1.] Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan cond. Deutsche Grammophon The Originals 0289 447 4082 0, 1996 [from DG 138 924 SLPM, 1964]; CD or download.
Brahms: The Four Symphonies. NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini cond. RCA Red Seal 74321 55838; 2 CDs. [Performances from 1951–52, digitally remastered in 1999.]
Brahms: Symphonies No. 2, 3, and 4. Munich Philharmonic, Sergiu Celibidache cond. EMI Classics 72435568462 2, 1999; 2 CDs. [The Fourth Symphony is taken from a 1985 concert performance.]
Brahms: Symphony No. 4. Vienna Philharmonic, Carlos Kleiber cond. Deutsche Grammophon The Originals 457706, 1998; CD. [From DG SLPM 2532 003, 1981.]