Friday, October 17, 2008

To Infinite Brahms and Beyond

By paying so much (too much?) attention to whether or not Johannes Brahms was "stuck in the long shadow of the history of the music that preceded him, particularly that of Ludwig van Beethoven," I realize I have neglected the extent to which Brahms cast a shadow of his own into the twentieth century, perhaps because it sometimes seems as if Arnold Schoenberg was the only one to recognize that shadow. Indeed, on the basis of the Chamber Music Masters concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night, organized around the visit of violist Kim Kashkashian, there is good reason to believe that Brahms was already casting that shadow before his death. Viewed in terms of that possible shadow, what made last night's event particularly interesting was that the four composers on the program were all Hungarian, thus at least suggesting that, for all the ways in which Brahms had been influenced by Hungarian sources, the "real Hungarians" were now ready to turn the tables on him, not so much out of revenge but more out of a need to clarify Hungarian identity.

The laws of optics explain why it is that shadows are always sharper when one is closer to both the source and the light behind it. From this point of view, I think it makes sense to examine the works on the program in chronological order. This is not the order in which they were performed; but, since the order listed in the program also had to be modified, I have no qualms about imposing my own order to provide a better perspective on the listening experience.

Thus, I shall begin with the final work on the program, the Opus 1 of Ernő (Ernst) von Dohnányi, the first (of two) piano quintets he composed, this one in C minor. According to my records, I have written about Dohnányi only twice and about the same composition on both occasions, his Opus 10 Serenade for string trio. In both of those programs, his music was coupled with that of Brahms; and my first post was entitled, "Late Brahms and Early Dohnányi." However, while this Serenade dates from 1902, the piano quintet was completed in1895, which puts it approximately two years before Brahms' death and one year after the two Opus 120 clarinet sonatas with which Brahms had emerged from "retirement" under the inspiration of Richard Mühlfeld.

Whether or not Dohnányi intended it, there is nothing wrong with listening to this piano quintet as a sincere homage to Brahms Both the key and the plan of the work follow those of Brahms' final (Opus 60) piano quartet (about twenty years old when Dohnányi was working on his own project); and, as is the case in the Brahms piano quartet, the third movement is dominated by a melodic line in the lower voices. However, while the cello dominates in the Brahms, the viola takes the lead in the Dohnányi, which may explain Kashkashian's interest in the work. The only really interesting difference is that Dohnányi has dispensed with the "Werther connection," often associated with the Brahms piano quartet. In spite of its minor key, the Dohnányi quintet is charged with highly positive energy and has progressed into the major key by its final movement. Thus, this is a work that, even if it is an "Opus 1," has very much established its own voice; and the "family resemblance" to Brahms simply guides our understanding, just as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that conceptual understanding, in general, is guided by such family resemblance.

The next work in the chronological ordering I have chosen to follow is a 1905 Adagio for viola and piano (again featuring Kashkashian) by Zoltán Kodály. In this case the only time I previously wrote about Kodály's music was when it also shared a program with Brahms, this time the Opus 25 G minor piano quartet, with its distinctively Hungarian final movement. It sometimes feels as if Kodály is better known for his ethnomusicological studies of Hungarian folk music than for his composing; but, if I am to believe the dates in his Wikipedia entry, I would assume that this Adagio was completed before he began his extensive field work. This is thus another composition where the primary influence appears to be coming from Brahms, most likely the reworking of the Opus 120 clarinet sonatas as viola sonatas. As was the case with the Brahms sonatas, it is an excellent vehicle for demonstrating just how lyrical the sound of a viola can be; but it makes its case in a single ternary-form movement.

Chronological order next brings us to Béla Bartók and the 44 violin duos, number 98 in András Szöllősy's chronological Sz. numbers. These were completed in 1931, which places them after Bartók had begun to accompany Kodály in his ethnomusicological field work. We have now left the domain of direct influence from Brahms and entered that of some of Brahms' sources. Bartók, however, was finding his voice in the original sounds, which were often quite striking in comparison with what one was expecting to hear in a concert setting. Eleven of these duos were performed from a transcription for two violas, possibly by Kashkashian herself. They were also arranged (again possibly by Kashkashian) for an ensemble of eight violas, which included six students and Conservatory Faculty Member Jodi Levitz (along with Kashkashian herself). These arrangements used the ensemble in a variety of ways, not only in terms of when a voice was played by a single or multiple instruments but also with regard to the spatial effects of which voices came from which directions. (The ensemble was arranged in a U formation, with the open end facing the audience.) All of the works were brief, and a few felt as if they filled the duration of a single breath. However, even the more pensive works were highly charged with energy; and I could easily understand why, chronological considerations aside, this made for an excellent beginning of the evening's program.

This brings us to 1978, the year in which György Kurtág completed his "Hommage À Mihàly András, 12 Mikroludien Für Streichquartett." I was first introduced to Kurtág when Marino Formenti gave his three "San Francisco Piano Trips" recitals in April of 2007, the first of which was entitled "Kurtág's Ghosts." From that concert I learned that Kurtág was a miniaturist with a truly exhaustive sense of music history. I also formed the suspicion that he had a sense of humor; and that suspicion was confirmed when I heard another of his homage compositions, this one for Robert Schumann, performed last April in another Chamber Music Masters concert. That humor is again evident in his bilingual title in which he invents a word that conjures up Bartók's (also miniaturist) Mikrokosmos, the plural of the German for "prelude" that we find in the scores for Johann Sebastian Bach, and quite possibly a play on the Latin ludus for "game" (as in Paul Hindemith's own set of preludes and fugues, Ludus Tonalis). The shadow of Brahms has now grown so faint that we can barely recognize it (if it is still there at all in any form other than Kurtág's "Schumann connection"); and it may even have been displaced by the shadow of Anton Webern. These pieces are even shorter than the Bartók duos, and they reflect the influence of both Bartók and Webern in their approach to eliciting unconventional sounds for the instruments of a string quartet. They also remind us just how far our capacity for listening has progressed since the death of Brahms and how much further it may yet venture!

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