MY LEAST FAVORITE BRAHMS SYMPHONY – AT LEAST UNTIL TONIGHT
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 (I felt for the first time more new emotions by listening to Brahms than from real life). His sense of structure is mine. What others used to take for muddiness I take for supreme aesthetic logic.
Given this context, please understand when I say that when I list the four symphonies in order of preference, from my favorite to my least favorite, it goes as follows: First, Fourth, Third, Second. The second has never satisfied me. I am hopeful every time I hear a new performance of it, but my hopes are dashed in short order.
I should have remembered that how highly I esteem a piece is very often dependent on the quality of the performance of it. Otherwise, I tend to disparage the work, when I should be disparaging the performers.
Tonight, I heard for the first time the performance of the Second Symphony by Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic. It was on cable TV and 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:
Meaningful, intelligent phrasing. Not prefabricated phrasing that approximates but never custom fits the notes. Each phrase came out of the unique meaning of each passage.
Pellucid orchestration: clear, harmonious and well balanced as is true all the greatest of the orchestrator-composers.
Informed harmonically. Brahms may be the greatest master of harmony among the pantheon of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms – which is not saying a little. Every chord in the piece had its proper aesthetic sense, for a moment a revelation and quickly as if it could not have been otherwise. No passing tone, no tone of embellishment that didn’t gain meaning from the governing chords.
Great realization of Brahms’ mastery of counterpoint.
I was engaged. I was not bored by what previously had seemed to trite-isms of this particular work: overindulgence in the more obvious emotional features mixed with ignorance of all that came in between.
So although my order of preference among the Brahms symphonies remains the same (1, 4, 3, 2), the Second Symphony is now not far and away the last and least, but has drawn closer to the others.
One caveat to myself. I’ve heard other performances conducted by Marin Alsop that have engaged me the first time I heard but whose appeal fell off with subsequent hearings. Maybe this time it will be different.
🙂 responses welcome. how do you feel?
Hey, Joe. It’s Marin Alsop, not Martin. She’s the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony and I think recently hired as the Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. She’s often a guest on Scott Simon’s Saturday morning show on NPR (otherwise I wouldn’t have known about her name).
Hi Barry, Thank you so much for this note! I will change it immediately, and apologize for the mistake.