Johannes Brahms: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Johannes Brahms

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Johannes Brahms: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Johannes Brahms




Johannes Brahms: Overview


Johannes Brahms: Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d. Vienna, 3 April 1897).



Rather than follow in his own innkeeper father's footsteps, Johannes Brahms's father, Jakob Brahms, apprenticed himself to near-by town musicians before trying his luck in Hamburg as horn-player in the militia band and doublebass player in casual tavern groups. Though at twenty-four he married a splendid housewife seventeen years his senior, home life for Johannes Brahms, his elder sister and his younger brother was humble. But sacrifices were made to give him a good grammar-school education, which kindled his interest in literature, also to send him to an enlightened young teacher, Friedrich Cossel, for piano lessons. At ten, Johannes Brahms played well enough for a passing American impresario to propose a tour of the States as a Wunderkind. This Cossel forbade, but handed him over to his own teacher, the eminent Eduard Marxsen, who without payment, assumed responsibility for all further tuition in piano and composition, always with strong emphasis on respect for classical tradition.



Despite Jakob's improved position (he eventually played double-bass in Hamburg's Municipal Theatre and Philharmonic Orchestra) Johannes Brahms left school at fifteen to augment the family income, once or twice attempting serious recitals but mainly playing in seamy dock-side taverns or else arranging popular tunes for publishers. So when early in 1853 a refugee Hungarian violinist, Eduard Remenyi, proposed a modest concert tour in nearby places where they had friends, Johannes Brahms jumped at the chance of escape.



From Winsen, where as a boy he spent two blissful summer holidays, then Celle, they went on to Hanover to look up Remenyi's old student friend, Joseph Joachim, already at twenty-two Konzertmeister to the King. Profoundly impressed by Johannes Brahms and some compositions he played, Joachim gave them an introduction to Liszt at Weimar. Though sympathetically received, Johannes Brahms felt ill at ease in this grandly organised stronghold of the progressivists of the day, known as the New German School, so much displeasing Remenyi for not feigning admiration as to bring their partnership to an end. Fearing similar embarrassments, it was not till late September 1853, that Johannes Brahms braced himself to visit the Schumanns in Diisseldorf, again on Joachim's insistence. Here, in a comparatively simple home full of young children, he was immediately happy, the more so when both Robert and Clara Schumann enthused no less that Joachim over his first two sonatas and E flat minor Scherzo for piano, likewise several songs and chamber works. Though now far from well, Schumann even wrote an article for the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, after ten years' silence as a critic, proclaiming Johannes Brahms as the outstanding representative of the younger generation for whom the world was waiting.



When news of Schumann's breakdown reached Johannes Brahms in Hanover early in 1854, he rushed back to Diisseldorf to help Clara. As hopes of recovery slowly faded, she increasingly relied on him while, to support her family, she resumed her career as a pianist. He in his turn gradually realised he was in love with her, albeit fourteen years his senior and the wife of his greatest champion. Months of anguished conflict sowed the seeds of several major works not completed for many years. Though on Schumann's death in 1856 Johannes Brahms and Clara decided to go their separate ways, their friendship remained the deepest emotional anchorage Johannes Brahms ever knew.



To pick up the threads of his career he returned to Hamburg, first sharing his parents' flat, then renting rooms of his own in the garden suburb of Hamm. An invitation to spend the last three months of 1857 as pianist and choir conductor at the Court of Detmold proved rewarding enough for him to return for similar periods the next two years, while in Hamburg he derived much pleasure from a ladies' choral society he founded, conducted and composed for. His main creative energy nevertheless went into a D minor piano concerto conceived during the Schumann crisis, a dramatic, symphonically argued work so misunderstood by the public as to incite hissing when Johannes Brahms played it in Leipzig shortly after the Hanover premiere in January 1859. 1860 brought more trouble when, incensed by an article claiming that everyone of consequence upheld the ideals of the New German School, Johannes Brahms and Joachim drew up a protest which they hoped to get signed by a large number of sympathetic friends. But it accidentally found its way into the Berlin Echo when only two others had signed besides themselves, humiliating Johannes Brahms and casting him as a far more die-hard anti-romanticist than was true. He was still more upset when he was not offered the vacant conductorship of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, while in his private life friends castigated him for compromising a young amateur singer, Agathe von Siebold, who attracted him strongly and inspired many songs, yet to whom he was unable to 'fetter himself, as he once put it, in matrimony.



A visit to Vienna during the winter of 1862/63 restored self-confidence, especially after an invitation to return as conductor of its Singakademie throughout the 1863/4 season. Old ties with Hamburg were further loosened in 1865 by his mother's death and his father's remarriage, and when in 1872 Jakob Brahms also died and Johannes Brahms himself was offered the conductorship of Vienna's renowned Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, involving orchestra as well as choir, he decided to settle permanently in the Austrian capital, whose gaiety, beauty, and stimulating friendships and musical traditions had begun to mean more to him than anything in his native north Germany.



Besides winning respect on the rostrum, not least for services to his passionately admired Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, the premiere of his own German Requiem (inspired by the death of his mother) in Bremen Cathedral on 10th April 1868, at last convinced the world of his true stature as a composer. A spate of other major choral works followed, each to a remarkable degree growing from his own current emotional involvements, whether patriotic, as in the Triumphlied (1871), written to celebrate Germany's victory in the Franco-Prussian war, or purely personal, as in the Alto Rhapsody, dating from a brief, undeclared and unreciprocated surge of feeling in 1869 for Clara's sweet-natured, frail, third daughter, Julie. Though remaining a bachelor, Johannes Brahms's susceptibility to young women, especially singers, remained incurable.



By 1875 his imagination was sufficiently inflamed by orchestral timbre to compel him to resign the conductorship of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde to have more time for orchestral composition. In 1876 he completed a first symphony in C minor, sparked off at the time of the Schumann crisis some twenty years earlier, and this he soon followed with a much more genially lyrical second symphony in D and a violin concerto in the same key for Joachim, besides the Academic Festival and Tragic overtures. Besieged with invitations from all over Europe to conduct as well as play his own music (including an evergrowing number of chamber works and songs) he now found it imperative to escape into the country, preferably amidst mountains and lakes, for long summer breaks to compose. Baden-Baden, where Clara Schumann had a holiday house, was at first a favourite, but Portschach, Thun, and Ischl (where Johannes Brahms's good friend, Johann Strauss, had a villa) increasingly lured him too. In 1878 his Viennese friend and champion, the distinguished surgeon, Theodor Billroth, opened up new vistas by taking him to Italy for a holiday, a land he grew to love, equally for its cultural traditions and natural beauty, enough to revisit as often as possible.



Further stimulation for orchestral composition came in 1881 from the conductor, Hans von Biilow, who invited Johannes Brahms to use his own exceptionally well trained Meiningen Court Orchestra as a trying-out ground for new works, and also to join the orchestra either as conductor or soloist on its novel, history-making tours. His second piano concerto in B flat (1881) reached a wide public unusually soon in this way, likewise a third symphony in F (1883), once nick-named his 'Eroica' because of its struggle to assert the validity of his life-long FAF motto (frei aber froh, in answer to Joachim's frei aber einsam, i.e. FAE), and a fourth and last symphony in E minor (1884), ending with a mighty passacaglia on a theme borrowed from Bach. Having reached the peak of his 'architectural' invention here, he only returned to the orchestra once more to write a double concerto for violin and 'cello (1887) as a peace-offering for Joachim after a serious breach in their friendship occasioned by Brahm's sympathy for Joachim's wife at the time of their divorce.



Now sufficiently well off to show exceptional kindness to anyone in need, Johannes Brahms nevertheless often upset even his most intimate friends with his gruff plain-speaking. Clara Schumann, more and more bowed down by her own illness and ailing children and grandchildren, perhaps suffered most of all in this respect, also from the knowledge that he now had several other close personal friends whose opinions about music he valued as much as her own. Yet even their worst misunderstandings and estrangements always ended in tender rapprochements, and it was often with Clara in mind that Johannes Brahms, increasingly preferring intimate miniatures to larger projects, wrote many of his tender late intermezzos for the piano. In these, as in the clarinet quintet (1891) and other works inspired by the playing of Richard Muhlfeld, first clarinettist in the Meiningen Orchestra, there was an undercurrent of deep nostalgia occasioned by growing awareness of life's transience as those near to him, including his devoted erstwhile pupil, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, Billroth and Hans von Bulow, all died.



Though still keenly interested in the musical life of Vienna and the activities of every young composer who wanted to visit him, Johannes Brahms gradually reduced his own platform activities after turning sixty in 1893. But when Clara died in 1896, an event which though prepared for still shocked him deeply, his waning energy and deteriorating appearance caused such concern that he was reluctantly persuaded to consult doctors. Unbeknown to him, the diagnosis was cancer of the liver, as with his father; by April 1897, he was dead. Though the splendour of his funeral ill-accorded with the simple life-style he had preserved even in mature prosperity, it was as indicative of the esteem in which he was held in establishment circles the world over as the many official decorations and honorary awards showered on him throughout his later years.



Inevitably, younger members of the New German School deplored his rock-like allegiance to those classical principles first implanted in him as a boy by Marxsen. Not interested in current experiments in unity and compression through metamorphosis of a 'motto 1 theme, Johannes Brahms remained faithful to the traditional logic of sonata-form, rondo, passacaglia, fugue and variation (a particular favourite). Nor, because more concerned with design and dialectic than in providing mere frissons for the ear, did he find it necessary to include exotic new instruments, like the cor anglais and tuba, in his scores, or to enlarge the existing orchestra by sheer weight of numbers. Loving the bracing, diatonic strength of German folk-song and of themes generated by his arpeggio-type F A F motto, he rarely tried to intensify either his melody or harmony through hyper-exploratory chromaticism. Above all else he hated wearing his heart on his sleeve in programme-music using sound as a means of painting pictures or telling stories. Yet in a sense Johannes Brahms was more romantic than most of those who branded him an anti-romanticist in that nearly every work he wrote - and his large output included almost every genre except opera - grew from his own personal experience. As the late Dr Colles once put it There is a story at the back of all Johannes Brahms's great works, but it is a personal story, not a dramatic one like the stories of Berlioz and Liszt, and it is told only in music.'



As a craftsman he was a perfectionist, suppressing some works altogether and wrestling with others for years before allowing them to reach the public. 'Go over it again and again until there is not a bar you could improve on', he once counselled a friend. 'Whether it is beautiful also is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be.' Yet in most of his music, his idiom was very much his own from the start. Time brought new subtleties and refinements, of course, but no steady process of evolution as in Beethoven. In this respect Johannes Brahms was one of music's mysteries in 'arriving fully armed, like Athena from the head of Zeus', as Schumann so percipiently observed in that now famous article of 1853.



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