Sunday, May 25, 2008

(Relatively) Early Brahms

The performance of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms seems to have been programmed as the culmination of this month's Brahms Festival, presented by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. Yet it is important to recognize that this work, whose first performance in its entirety in Bremen in 1868 was a great success, which, as Michael Steinberg wrote in his program notes, "marked a turning point in his career," predates all of the music performed at the first concert of this Festival (including the pre-concert chamber music on May 11). Brahms was all of 35 at this premiere; and, while he had accumulated a significant portfolio of vocal music, chamber music, and solo piano works, his efforts at orchestral writing were far more modest. Other than his two orchestral serenades (the second of which was performed at last week's Festival concert), his only extended orchestral work was his first piano concerto, whose 1859 premiere in Leipzig had been a "brutal" (Steinberg's adjective) failure.

From this point of view, to return to the language I had used in writing about the May 11 concert, there is a strongly prospective element in the orchestral writing of the German Requiem. From the very opening sonorities, which divide the lower strings (violas, cellos, and basses) into five voices, we are experiencing Arnold Schoenberg's "progressive" Brahms experimenting with the kinds of sonorities he had evoked in his two string sextets by translating them to orchestral scale. In the course of the work, we hear anticipations of not only sonorities but also rhetorical gestures in later orchestral writing that we know so well, such as the four symphonies.

All of these orchestral resources support a compositional hand already confident in writing for chorus and solo voices. The first half of the program provided us with the context of this compositional experience base. It began with the 1856 "Geistliches Lied" (Opus 30), for accompanied (in this case by an organ) four-part mixed chorus. This work was then followed by the Opus 17 set of four songs for women's chorus (written in 1860, in spite of its earlier opus number), in which the voices are accompanied by two horns and a harp. This probably counts as Brahms' first "experimental approach" to instrumental sonority; and he uses those elements cautiously and modestly. It is almost as if the choral writing began as an elaborate pencil drawing or woodcut; and, after it had been conceived, Brahms then experimented with introducing color as a way to highlight the details of the drawing without overwhelming them. Perhaps that 1859 piano concerto premiere had shaken Brahms' confidence in writing for instruments, leading him to pull back to more subtle approaches.

By the time of the German Requiem, Brahms no longer felt a need for such subtlety. Thus, when the text of the second movement arrives at "Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit" ("But the word of the Lord endureth forever," from the last verse of the first chapter of The First Letter of Peter), both orchestra and chorus burst forth in the full strength of "Herrn Wort" with an "eternal resonance" that celebrates the "good news" of Peter's letter. Indeed, there is a pervading spirit of "good news" that distinguishes this work from the Catholic requiem text, with the terrifying visions of its "Dies irae" and "Libera me" sections. Those texts have certainly inspired some of the most impressive orchestral writing throughout the centuries, but Brahms was inspired by an entirely different spirit. The emphasis in Brahms' treatment is on rest and comfort, free of all intimidating ghosts of a punitive afterlife. Thus, while he appropriates the same "trumpet shall sound" text that Handel had used in Messiah, the connotation lies in the subsequent text (which Handel also set) of the death that has lost its sting.

I realize that, when I wrote about the first concert of this Festival on May 11, I wrote absolutely nothing about the performers, primarily because there was so much to write about the music. In many respects this may be the highest form of praise for a performance, because it means that the performance has become so much at one with the music that the music itself registers most in memory. This was again true for last night's performance, particularly in the first half, which served more to introduce us to unfamiliar works. However, I think it is still important to observe that, if Brahms' compositional hand was confident in unfolding his conception of A German Requiem, then the "conducting hand" of Michael Tilson Thomas was just as confident, tuning the pace and balance of the entire ensemble with the same sure subtlety that Brahms had engaged in applying instrumental color to his Opus 17 songs. It is also important to recognize Matthias Goerne, whose diction was as impeccable as his tone and who applied his own sense of subtlety in providing just the right level of dramatic presence behind the texts he delivered. Soprano Laura Claycomb also homed in on that same level of dramatization; but her own quality of tone was slightly impeded by a tendency to neglect the consonants in the text. It would also be remiss to ignore Michael Grebanier's cello solo, which was one of those "rhetorical gestures" of instrumental writing that we would encounter in later Brahms compositions.

I have to confess that I was particularly attentive to Grebanier, because my evening began with the Opus 111 string quintet as the pre-concert chamber music offering. This work was about as far from the spirit of the main program as you could imagine, unless you took the approach I suggested of viewing those works in a prospective light. This quintet is not orchestral writing; but, compositionally at least, it provides a good sense of where Brahms ultimately headed (perhaps even in the context of those five string voices that begin the Requiem). That sense of "arrival" is there with the very opening gesture of a soaring cello solo set against the tightly-knit tremolo passages for the two violins and two violas. After this quintet Brahms would compose only four more chamber compositions, all featuring the clarinet: the Opus 114 trio, the Opus 115 quintet, and the two Opus 120 sonatas. Whether or not Brahms felt he had said all he had to say about a string ensemble after Opus 111 is debatable; but these particular "last words" are some of the most positive to have been written for such a group. Thus, now that the Brahms Festival has concluded, I realize that my only regret is that the full scope of this man's work was not given adequate justice in such a small number of concerts.

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