Released October 30, 2015
Composers: Johannes Brahms
Performers: National Arts Centre Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth
Genres: Concerto, Symphony
This recording was made possible thanks to the generosity of Harvey and Louise Glatt
Brahms’ last purely orchestral composition was written in 1887, a decade before his death. He spent the summer of that year enjoying the scenery and local attractions around Lake Thun in Switzerland. Brahms and the famous Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim had been close friends for years, but their relationship had dissolved when Brahms sided with Joachim’s wife in a marital dispute. After a long interval, Brahms tentatively began corresponding with his old friend again. Work on the Double Concerto was used as the pretext for much correspondence between the two men, and Brahms no doubt saw this composition as the means toward a complete reconciliation. The first performance was a private one, given in Baden-Baden, with Brahms conducting and with Joachim and Robert Hausmann (the cellist in Joachim’s string quartet) as soloists.
The first public performance was given in Cologne on October 18, 1887 featuring the same artists. Although this remains the least played of Brahms’s four concertos, its towering strength, sweeping melodies and sublime beauties place it among the composer’s greatest achievements. Compositions for this combination of soloists are not plentiful. There had been examples before Brahms, but none on his level of achievement – from Vivaldi (three of them!), Johann Christian Bach, Leopold Hofmann, Josef Reicha, Carl Stamitz, Antonín Vranický and Donizetti. Following Brahms’s example, the next major figure to write such a concerto was Delius (1916). Other significant works are Miklós Rózsa’s Sinfonia concertante (1966) composed for Heifetz and Piatigorsky, and Robert Starer’s concerto of 1968. For some reason, there seems to be a flurry of Double Concertos for violin and cello written in recent years by composers including Arvo Pärt, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Philip Glass. Brahms’s soloists are widely separated in range, but he effectively incorporates them into a concerto that both displays their individual tonal beauties and offers numerous possibilities for ensemble work. These qualities are evident right in the concerto’s opening moments.
The full orchestra makes a stentorian pronouncement, but after just four bars it is cut off, as if in mid-sentence, by the solo cello, which ruminates darkly on the theme. The wind choir attempts to introduce a second theme, this one gracious and lyrical, but it too is interrupted, this time by the solo violin. Both soloists engage in an extended cadenza, which becomes more and more exhilarating as they sweep up and down a combined range spanning nearly five octaves. Their final chords before the orchestra resumes are quadruple stopped, meaning that all four strings of each instrument are in use simultaneously – an extraordinary eight-part texture from just two instruments. All this has been by way of introduction. Now the traditional orchestral exposition takes place, using the two principal themes already presented in fragmentary form. Throughout the movement the soloists engage in dialogue with each other, individually with the orchestra, and as a solo unit with the orchestra. The principal themes as well as subsidiary materials are all thoroughly worked out in the course of this spaciously planned movement. The ternary-form Andante movement is suffused with some of Brahms’s most ardent lyricism and expansive melodies. The principal theme is initially stated by the soloists in octaves, the second is a heartfelt chorale for winds. Walter Niemann, in his biography of Brahms, described this movement as “a great ballade, steeped in the rich, mysterious tone of a northern evening atmosphere”.
The final movement is a rondo with a principal theme of Hungarian inspiration. Memorable tunes, great rhythmic vitality, massive sonorities (again, the soloists engage in seven- and eight-part chords), humour, and even a brief duet in which the solo cello part is higher in range than that of the violin all contribute to the special nature of this music. A brilliant coda brings the concerto to a close in glorious A major.
Brahms wrote his Fourth Symphony in 1884 and 1885. He made a two-piano arrangement and performed it with Ignaz Brüll for a select company of friends and musicians. Their response was decidedly cool, but the public applauded warmly at the premiere on October 17, 1885. The symphony opens with a gesture that suggests the work has been in progress for some time, and that we have entered its realm in mid-point. The tiny two-note cell of “short-long,” heard at the very outset in the violins, becomes the main building block, or musical mortar, if you like, upon which the entire movement is based. Other themes are heard too, but the two-note motif is never far away, often lurking in an accompanimental figuration or secondary idea. The second subject in this sonata-form movement is introduced by a fanfare figure in horns and woodwinds, which leads into the soaring, lyrical theme for cellos and horn. The horn (doubled by oboe) also gives the first statement of the closing theme in a more genial and relaxed mood than hitherto encountered. The slow movement is unusual in that it is founded on the same keynote as the first – E. (Composers usually took care to provide a contrasting tonality after the weighty first movement). With E minor still ringing in our ears from the first movement, two horns proclaim a motif beginning on the note E, but Brahms delays confirmation of the idyllic E major tonality for some time. The movement moves through a cosmos of moods, from autumnal melancholy and melting lyricism to forbidding austerity and stern grandeur, expiring to the same horn motif that opened the movement.
The third movement is usually described as a scherzo, though Brahms did not call it that. In its massive orchestration, which includes timbres unusual for Brahms (piccolo and triangle), we find an infectious, virile spirit that remains etched in the memory far more powerfully than any particular melodic idea. The Finale is the most unusual movement of all, employing as it does the passacaglia or chaconne technique – a compositional process popular in the Baroque period in which an entire piece is built over a continuously recurring pattern of notes or chords. Brahms took his theme from Bach’s Cantata No. 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich), which is heard at the outset by the entire wind choir, including trombones (their first entry in the symphony!). The chaconne was out of fashion in Brahms’s day, and had never been used in a symphony before, but his interest in older musical forms, particularly fugue and counterpoint of all types, and his inner need to rise to the challenge, provided the impetus. The potential pitfall of writing a chaconne lies in the danger of monotony – using those same few notes or chords over and over again. But never in the thirty continuous variations that follow the presentation of the eight eight-bar “theme” (plus four more in extended versions in the coda) do we feel an absence of momentum, an overuse of tonic harmonies, a sense of tedious regularity, or anything less than total mastery and economy of means.© Robert Markow