Brahms's First Symphony
July 6, 2015 6:18 PM   Subscribe

I favorited the FPP because it is well done, but Brahms leaves me cold. I find him to be the most melancholic, depressing and "brown" of the Romantics, even more so than Schumann, a certified manic depressive. If I'm ever feeling a bit too good about myself and my prospects Johannes will set me straight. Still, a nice post...
posted by jim in austin at 7:16 PM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Good lord, if Brahms leaves you cold, what happens to you when you hear Shostakovich?!? Do you join the White Walkers?
posted by Dashy at 7:36 PM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have the opposite reaction to Brahms, I find his music heartfelt and deeply affirming.

Having conducted his symphonies a few times, I've thought about them a lot and find them quite difficult to perform really well, for reasons that are not specifically technical. My favorite performance recorded to date is Gardiner and the ORR. Gardiner avoids the plodding, overwrought and often cloying nature of most performances (most especially those led by Karajan, which have all the subtlety of a boulder).
posted by LooseFilter at 7:47 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good lord, if Brahms leaves you cold, what happens to you when you hear Shostakovich?!?

Dmitri was hardly a Romantic. But if I hear a distinctly "brown sound" being broadcast by KMFA, odds are it's probably Brahms. This is strictly a personal reaction and not meant to be any sort of elevated or informed musical criticism...
posted by jim in austin at 7:54 PM on July 6, 2015

OP: I've noted a subtle but unmistakable pattern in your recent posts and I want you to know I'm personally cool with it.

thanks for the nice posts, is what I mean
posted by vanar sena at 9:33 PM on July 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh, I love, love Brahms. And Shostakovich. I find Wagner borderline-cloying though. That and it makes me want to invade Poland.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:00 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

And I see "cloying" appears elsewhere in the thread. I suppose that's a danger of late-19th century stuff.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:01 AM on July 7, 2015

These posts keep getting made, and I keep reading "Tom Servo writes about this in The Guardian" and then looking again and going "DAMMIT!".
posted by hippybear at 2:44 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

thanks for the nice posts, is what I mean

Hey, if July is "Bernstein conducts $SYMPHONY, now examine $SYMPHONY a bit more in depth" month from this OP, I have ZERO complaints. It's definitely Best Of The Web.
posted by hippybear at 2:46 AM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Compared directly to the Karajan piece, I think the Bernstein one sounds a bit anemic.
posted by colfax at 7:35 AM on July 7, 2015

You know how the old Brahms One joke goes: Beethoven's 10th symphony is the best symphony Brahms ever wrote.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:02 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Bernstein's mugging and showboating has always annoyed me.
posted by slkinsey at 8:11 AM on July 7, 2015

I love Brahms's songs (like, LOVE) but don't know the symphonies that well, so thank you for this post.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:53 AM on July 7, 2015

Compared directly to the Karajan piece, I think the Bernstein one sounds a bit anemic.

That's because Karajan used a hugely beefed-up orchestra, with really large string sections and doubled (sometimes tripled) wind parts. He liked a huuuuuuuge sound, which I think just absolutely tramples and obliterates any deftness in his ensembles over the years. It's not a very adaptable sound aesthetic, and all his recordings sound like 'Karajan conducting composer x' rather than, say, just a compelling and convincing performance of a piece by composer x that is about the piece itself and not his preconceived notions of orchestral sound imposed onto every sound world he explored.

It's really facile, in my view, to play Beethoven and Brahms or every other composer's music the same way. These pieces are separated by decades and centuries of creative practice, technological development, and cultural and social change, so the ideas that inform them can be vastly different; Karajan's performances mostly ignore that because he wanted everything to sound like him (seriously, he was such a narcissist that he conducted with his eyes closed. Like, no collaboration with the musicians in front of him, they're just there to serve his divine vision or whatever).

To illustrate what I'm describing, here is a bit of Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic playing Brahms 4. Listening from the beginning, the sound is beautifully balanced and the ensemble is pretty immaculate (not by contemporary standards, but players are pretty fucking amazingly good these days), and plays with a fair amount of raw energy. But notice Karajan's disengagement with the actual musicians in front of him, his eyes are mostly closed and his gestures, while evocative, are very non-specific, and certainly not directed at any individual player or group of players. He only conducts the sound and as a result the texture is pretty flat and doesn't draw your ear in any particular direction. (With Brahms specifically this aspect is critical: his music is profoundly developmental, constantly evolving and changing almost kaleidoscopically, and the performers must make that evolution clear to listeners, or the ideas are just muddled.) The sound ends up just big and undifferentiated, expressively.

Compare that to this performance by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. You'll notice immediately his physical engagement with the players, that he is collaborating and communicating specifically with the actual people playing in front of him. The players are more vibrant too, physically looser and more kinetic, and their playing--while less monolithic in terms of sonic power--is so much more vibrant and nuanced (and just better--as I said, the level of contemporary performance is amazing) and because Rattle is directly collaborating with his players, his gestures are more specifically evocative and the sound is far more nuanced and subtle and nimble as a result. I really think that this performance helps listeners to follow Brahms' train of thought much better, to actually hear this piece more comprehensively, and it clearly renders the beautiful and finely detailed tapestries Brahms created. And as a result is a much more rich listening experience.

(And I would be remiss if I didn't also link a quintessential Brahms 4 led by the conductor's conductor Carlos Kleiber. But I still think that Gardiner and the ORR have made the most compelling recordings of these symphonies.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:09 AM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

To illustrate in terms of the FPP, listen to these excerpts from the last movement of Brahms 1 back-to-back, and I think you'll hear everything I described (and the Karajan was recorded in 1988, so recording technology is not a huge difference here):



Also: Bernstein's mugging and showboating has always annoyed me.

Yeah, his recordings unfortunately don't really hold up these days, because they're just too inconsistent. What made him really exciting live didn't transfer well to record, unfortunately.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:24 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is pretty much my favorite piece of the Symphonic repertoire.
posted by hearthpig at 5:34 PM on July 7, 2015

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