Thursday, July 17, 2008

Two Views of Brahms' Chamber Music

I have now completed listening to the discs in the Orchestral and Chamber Music sections of the Brilliant Classics collection of the complete works of Johannes Brahms; but, as I move into the Piano Music section, I have not yet reached the halfway mark. This is because close to half of the discs are devoted to the Vocal Music section (which also happens to include a disc of Organ Works, probably for lack of any other section to accommodate it). Nevertheless, since my initial "ascent on Mount Beethoven" was interrupted by a defective chamber music disc (the first cello sonata), I feel as if I have passed a barrier, even if it happens to be a barrier of superstition!

Some readers may have inferred from a previous post that I already have the Philips Complete Chamber Music collection in my possession, so it is hard to resist making some comparisons. The Philips collection is older and most of the performers are more familiar, if not more venerable. Nevertheless, I would not want to be forced to make a preferential choice between the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips and Joseph Kalichstein, Jaime Laredo, and Sharon Robinson on Brilliant. They bring different ways of listening to the Brahms trios; and, as I recently observed about the "Beethoven's Eroica" DVD in the Keeping Score series, there is no such thing as a definitive perspective on any composition of music. On the other hand, given my personal preference for performances by Janos Starker, I find it a bit ironic that Philips satisfies that preference with the cello sonatas, while Brilliant satisfies it with the "Double Concerto."

More interesting is that Brilliant made up for Philips neglecting to include the works for two pianos and four hands on one piano as chamber music. Having played a fair amount of the four-hand repertoire (and some of the work for two pianos when I had the luxury to do so in Palo Alto), I strongly support Brilliant's decision, particularly since this gives us an opportunity to hear different perspectives on a single composition. The Haydn variations makes for the most interesting case in point; and, as I previously mentioned, it took only one listening to a good performance (by the performers in the Brilliant collection) of the piano version for me to prefer it over the orchestral. I tend to feel the same about the Hungarian dances, although I appreciate the extent to which these works gain some benefit from the right splashes of orchestral color. On the other hand I am not sure I have a preference for the Opus 39 waltzes when it comes to two hands or four; but some day I may try to work up the courage to take on the two-hand version myself. The most interesting contrast, however, comes from the Opus 34b sonata for two pianos, whose Opus 34(a) is the F minor piano quintet. This is a fascinating exercise in approaching a single "text" with two different types of sonority. Each approach has its own merits; and there is much to be said for the opportunity for side-by-side comparison. The same may be said for the Brilliant decision (also not made by Philips) to include both the clarinet and viola versions of the two Opus 120 sonatas. Again, the difference is all in the sonority; but that difference brings with it a difference in rhetorical approach, which makes for different directions in which the listener may be swayed.

So now I leave the Chamber Music base camp and begin the Piano Music ascent. None of the pianists in the Brilliant collection are familiar to me. However, it is also the case that I do not currently have that much of this music on CD, the most notable exception being the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Kristian Zimmerman playing the sonatas, along with the Opus 4 scherzo and the Opus 10 Balladen. Most of my Brahms is in my Rubinstein collection, which is far from thorough. In addition I have come to know many of these works through my own faltering attempts; so, as far as my own listening is concerned, my "pump is well primed" for the occasion. I have to confess that my greatest curiosity remains for the Vocal Music; but I am looking forward to what I may discover in new recordings of works by a composer who took his own piano-playing very seriously.

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