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My least favorite Brahms Symphony, up till now.

January 23, 2018

At last I’ve heard a decent performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony!

I am a Brahms junkie. I live and breathe Brahms. The air he breathes is the air I breathe. His emotions are my emotions. When I was growing up I felt many new emotions for the first time by listening to Brahms rather than from experiences in real life.

Given this enthusiasm, please understand that when I say that I have a “least” favorite Brahms Symphony, it is all relative. My preferences, in descending order, is: #1, #4, #3, and #2. The second had never satisfied me. Every time I hear a new performance of it, I raise my hopes, but they are dashed in short order.

In retrospect I realize that how I esteem a piece has often been dependent more on the quality of the first performance I hear of it, rather than what I come to know of the piece itself as my experiences with the piece grow in number. Let us just say that tonight, I heard for the first performance of the Second Symphony that reached all the standards I impute to Brahms. It was Martin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic. I missed the first two thirds of the first movement. It took a few minutes to accustom myself to the interpretation, but after that I was sold:

1) Meaningful and intelligent parsing and phrasing (not prefabricated phrasing that approximates but never custom fits the notes, or the orchestration or the harmony). Each phrase came out of the unique meaning of a passage.

2) Pellucid orchestration: clear, harmonious and well balanced as is true of all the great composers when writing for orchestra.

3) Harmonically well-informed playing. So many interpretations skim over, merely summarize the obvious steps in Brahms’s masterful harmonic progressions.

4) Every detail of the harmony had its proper aesthetic sense. No passing tone, no tone of embellishment at all, that didn’t gain meaning from the governing chords.

5) A masterful realization of Brahms’ mastery of counterpoint that made no attempt to avoid difficulties due to texture or orchestration.

I was engaged; I was not bored by what previously had seemed like trite overindulgences in the more superficial emotional aspects of the piece – mixed with ignorance of all that came in between.

So, although my order of preference among the Brahms symphonies remains the same, the Second Symphony is now not as far away from as it was from the firrst symphony.

A caveat to myself. I’ve heard other Brahms performances conducted by Martin Alsop that have engaged me the first time I heard but whose appeal fell off with subsequent hearings. I’m optimistic this time will be different.

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