Friday, July 11, 2008

All Brahms All the Time

I am not sure whether or not the Fates from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play, Iphigenie auf Tauris, whose song provided the text for a setting for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms, have anything to do with my listening habits; but it was at least a happy accident that the day on which I took my Brilliant Classics collection of the complete works of Ludwig van Beethoven to the post office as part of my exchange agreement with Collectors' Choice happened to be the day on which my order of the Brahms Gesamtwerk arrived! As I previously observed, this 60-CD set is even smaller than the Beethoven collection; and this makes for an interesting problem in packaging. The smaller the box gets, the less room there is to provide a printed index of the contents of each CD! On the other hand this is the first package to provide information about the performers as part of that index. This makes for at least one interesting decision regarding allocation of the available space: There is a single entry for the thirteen discs containing "Songs & Duets," followed by an enumeration of the twelve vocalists and nine accompanists (but no mention of the obbligato viola soloist in Opus 91).

In the earlier collections I had examined, I basically thought about the performers as I encountered them on their respective discs. Thus, as I had observed, I was particularly pleased with some of the "familiar and favorite faces" I found in the Beethoven collection. On the other hand most of the names in the collections for Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were far less familiar; but I was more interested in the relatively strong attention that had been given to recordings made with "period instruments" (often meaning reproductions of instruments from the time of composition, sometimes more manageable than the "original" instruments). Nevertheless, I was glad to see that I would now have a recording of Janos Starker playing the cello side of the Opus 102 "Double Concerto" (perhaps my own all-time favorite work for cello and orchestra, even if the cello has to share the spotlight with a violin), even if I know nothing about the violinist Emmy Verhey. I also again encountered Joseph Kalichstein, Jaime Laredo, and Sharon Robinson for the three piano trios, which reminded me of my time in the New York area when my wife and I attended all the recitals that they had arranged, in partnership with the Guarneri Quartet, to perform all of Brahms' chamber music for piano and strings (including Brahms' contribution to the "F.A.E." sonata) at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. The real surprise (and delight), however, was the disc that included performances of the piano versions of the Opus 56b Haydn variations (two pianos) and the Opus 39 waltzes (four hands on one piano) by the Israeli wife-husband duo of Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir. I used to have this recording on vinyl. I had purchased it as a "sentimental journey," since my first exposure to Opus 56b had come while I was living in Israel; and the performance was by Eden and Tamir. Both my wife and I have always preferred the piano version; so this quickly become one of the most heavily-played vinyls in my collection. When I gave up the vinyls, I had little hope of recovering these performances; so that one disc is, for me at least, a real jewel in the collection.

On the whole, however, what I have already heard and what I hope to hear (barring another problem with a dud CD) will all be up against very stiff competition. Where the symphonies are concerned, I am fanatically attached to the two conductors whose recordings I already have, Sergiu Celibidache (both the "unauthorized" Arkadia and the "authorized" EMI) and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The Brilliant collection features Jaap van Zweden conducting the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; and he certainly brings some interesting ideas about shaping the music to his performances (as well as taking the repeat in the first movement of the Opus 73 second symphony, which even Brahms was inclined to ignore); but I have to wonder if Brilliant could have done a better job of allocating disc space for these recordings. More problematic has been pianist Karin Lechner, whose performances of the two piano concertos (as well as the Opus 119 piano pieces included on the disc with the second concerto) were a bit too "polite" for my tastes; but I realize that my own preference for an "edge of vulgarity" in certain performances is probably a personal idiosyncrasy!

Nevertheless, even if I do not agree with all of the performance decisions, there is still a lot to say about having the opportunity to listen to even the most familiar of Brahms' compositions in the context of his "complete portfolio." This is the point I tried to make in taking issue with Anthony Tommasini's questioning the virtue of the Bis plan to release a 70-CD collection of the complete works of Jean Sibelius. In our quest to be better listeners, context may not (as the cliché goes) be everything; but it should not be treated as too negligible to be ignored. Since no recording, whether of Sibelius, Brahms, or Bach, can ever compete with the impact of a "live" performance, the primary virtue of collections of recordings resides in their capacity to prepare us for these "real thing" events; and, considering how many program notes end up trying to put a composition in its historical context, it is nice to be able to draw upon recordings at home to flesh out the musical side of those contexts.

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