In and Out of Beethoven’s Shadow

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Brahms: Symphony No. 1

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Westminster WGS 8166

Any ass can see that.

-Johannes Brahms replying to a comment that his First Symphony sounded too much like Beethoven


Hans von Bulow, the Romantic conductor and composer, said that Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 could just as well be called Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10, and there is excellent reason for his quip.

Brahms was forty-three when he completed it, in 1876, on one of the Baltic Islands (one can imagine him, trademark mocha on the table in front of him, taking his usual afternoon nap on a lounge chair). His Piano Concerto No. 1 was begun as his first symphony, and it is basically a symphony with an extensive piano part. The problem for Brahms and the symphony undertaking was essentially Beethoven, from whose shadow he’d had been trying to get out of for some time. Being a Beethoven-phile like any self-respecting composer of the day, he knew he would have to surmount the master in order to attain his own orchestral voice. And like all struggles against a father-idol, it was a neurotic one. The anxiety of influence indeed. His First Symphony, therefore, is a coming-to-terms with Beethoven’s monolithic hold, a Freudian act of overcoming.

To quote Michael Steinberg in his Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, the symphony is a “dense thicket” of sounds in more or less “contrary motion”. There’s always a certain hardness to Brahms’s music, a rigid adherence to form, which he was well aware of, and wished at times that he had Dvorak’s ear for melodies. But the First Symphony is Brahms at his most elegiac.

The Big Theme of the work comes in the Allegro, and here Brahms finally tackles the shadow of Beethoven in a huge way, and you can practically hear his personal, agonized bout with LvB at every measure. (There’s a hair-raising moment in Celibidache’s recording for EMI in which the conductor lets out a startling guttural shout, and I always think of this as him channeling Brahms).

In many ways, the Big Theme is a distorted mirror-image of the Ode to Joy, and it’s introduced with one of the great pauses in classical music, like a breath being inhaled before Brahms makes the plunge to paraphrase Beethoven and then to strike out on his own. The theme itself is a crystalline, undecorated hymn. Then, without dallying, the music hurtles forward, propelled by the final note of the theme, which is not to be heard again in its pure form.

The finale is a coruscating, accelerating, halting iteration of the theme going through stupendous, thrilling transfigurations. With an enormity that seems to come from an abyss of pent-up emotion, Brahms unleashes the full orchestra in a torrent of string tremolos and recapitulations of what’s been heard from beginning to end, before finding its own ferocious autonomy. This is Brahms moving away from Beethoven’s supersonic orbit and hurtling along to his own trajectory, even if the gravitational pull of Planet Beethoven is a constant.

What an apple on a scale has to do with the symphony, as this Westminster design has it, is anyone’s guess.

Going Fourth

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Beethoven: Symphony No.4 & “Grosse Fuge”

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field / Neville Marriner

Philips 9500 033

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, coming on the heels of the heroic 3rd and before the insanely popular and dramatic 5th, has always been overshadowed. Similar to the 8th Symphony with its overly classical appearance, the 4th sounds a bit like Beethoven getting back to his roots before dynamiting and revamping the whole of classical music with his subsequent symphonies, quartets and sonatas.

The 4th is notable, too, for having one of Beethoven’s longest intros–32 bars, with a flute sustaining B-flat. In comparison to the monumental symphonies to come, the symphony is small-scale. The mood throughout is conspicuously upbeat, sounding like a late, previously lost work by Haydn than as an example of early Romanticism.

It premiered alongside the Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1807. Since then it has gained the distinction of being the least performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, although today it’s starting to be performed on its own merits and not for the sake of a box set for completists. Neville Marriner and his period instrumentalists in the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Field give a spirited and impeccable rendition.

Much of the B-side of this release is taken up with an uncredited arrangement of the contrapuntally ferocious “Grosse Fuge” (Furtwangler and Klemperer did separate orchestral transcriptions, while Liszt put out a version for 4-hands piano before them). Pairing it with the 4th is a strange choice, yet it serves somehow as an appropriate counter-example to Beethoven’s very Classical symphony.

Across the Harmonic Universe

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 4

Karl Bohm / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Decca 2xLP 6BB 171/2 (2015 pressing)

Maybe this isn’t place, but I’ll confide anyway. I lost my virginity in the backseat of a vintage Mercedes, parked in a dark cornfield, to Anton Bruckner. Or, to specify, whilst listening to a CD of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, the “Romantic” (I know, right?)

Of all Bruckner’s symphonies, there’s probably not a better soundtrack to a first sexual experience. The fourth is a smorgasbord of styles, from Wagnerian excess to Vivaldi-like concerto grossi to classical chorale. Begun and completed in 1847 (it went through numerous revisions), the symphony starts with a soft E-flat major in the horn section, the intent being that you don’t realize the work has started until you find that it has. It creeps up on you like a sunrise.

Bruckner said that the beginning introduces a “medieval city – dawn” with knights, forest murmurs and bird song commingling. Then C-flat takes over, with the strings in E-flat for coloration, much of which is done in 2 plus 3 rhythms, with the various keys conflating and resolving in shades of black and light.

The 2nd movement is a ponderous Andante quasi Allegro, bringing about a dour march of sorts that leads to a jaunty Scherzo played at walking speed. The final movement, snatching anxiously at beautiful new themes as though plucking them from the ether, goes on brilliantly to reiterate gestures from the first movements, but with a far more grayscale mood and an elusive strangeness that backgrounds the entire symphony.

Michael Steinberg calls the conclusion “one of his greatest codas…grandly confident strides across huge territories of the harmonic universe.” As with all of Bruckner’s symphonies, it’s big, imposing and mysterious, and perhaps no other recordings brings out these qualities quite like Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Will the Real Shostakovich Please Stand Up?

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Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

National Philharmonic Orchestra / Dmitri Shostakovich, conductor

with Kabelevsky: Colas Breugnon Overture

Coliseum CRLP 173

I can’t be reproached for avoiding that ugly phenomenon of our reality.

-D. Shostakovich

Perhaps no other composer’s music is so autobiographical as Shostakovich’s. (His era, covering the Russian Revolution, WWI, WWII and the Stalin nightmare, gave him a lot of fodder). And among his 15 symphonies, the Tenth might be his most personal.

Often, critics overlook Shosta’s modernist leanings, and instead claim that his works are just notated digs at Stalin, thus reducing him to the status of a political composer. The Tenth does bear some of this politicization, but it’s more of a picaresque symphony documenting the composer’s travails and transfigurations. Shosta inserts his initials, using the German transliteration, as a recurring theme in the work, at first haltingly and transposed, in the uncertain 1st movement.

The symphony changes tack for the Allegro, which is one of the most brutal things you’re ever likely to hear. (The composer’s friend and chronicler, Volkov, says that this movement is a portrait of Stalin’s reign). Stalin had just died before Shostakovich began the symphony, in 1953, and perhaps he felt he had some wiggle room to shy away from social realism and to approach his materials more metaphorically.

As the music continues through a slow third movement and into the Andante-Allegro, Shosta’s initials keep popping up, more and more directly, until they’re stated boldly and without a moment’s hesitation. At the dawn of a freer world, the composer is finally allowed some measure of the self-expression he had to conceal from the totalitarian regime.

Once again, Shosta shows why he was the USSR’s updated Franz Joseph Haydn, with intricate, tight orchestration (paraphrasing not a little from Gustave Mahler) and an almost classical finale that would surely have been condemned by the state. Haydn, yes, but with a lot more drums, dissonances and savagery.

Originally recorded in Europe in 1954, this re-issue presents a rarity: Shostakovich conducting one of his very own symphonies.

Symphony Fantastic

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Bernard Haitink / Concertgebouw-Orchester, Amsterdam

Philips / 2xLP box set

Anton Bruckner could have been a pseudonym for Richard Wagner. His symphonies, starting with Symphony No. 0 and concluding with his unfinished 9th (a few conductors have finished it for him) are ear-throbbing, transcendent, huge-scale, depressing, uplifting, mercurial and quite simply orgasmic listening experiences. Jochum, Bohm, Celibidache, Barenboim have all championed his music. Pick any symphony and you’ll hear why.

The 5th Symphony, however, opens not with a huge shuddering roar, but with cellos and basses plucked in the softest possible pianissimo. Robert Simpson, in his monograph on the composer, says that “no symphony has has ever opened like this”. For those used to Bruckner’s colossal symphonies, which sound like a thousand orchestras in tandem, it’s a shockingly subdued intro.

Throughout the work, themes emerge and disperse, only to come to gradual realization in the chorale of the final bars of the Allegro moderato. As Michael Steinberg points out, the preceding movements come across as overtures to the “dialectic” of the ultimate fugal unfurling. Bruckner is known for his colossal finales of completely deranged counterpoint (just listen to the 7th, or the 4th, or the 8th, or any of them, actually).

Bruckner’s lengthy symphonies are big oceanic forces of nature. Different in many ways, the 5th partakes in that same ferociousness. But it’s at times tempered in equal parts by an expansive quietude that’s no less intense for its ethereal subtlety.

Bernard Haitink, another Bruckner enthusiast who at one point or another performed Bruckner’s entire symphonic output, gives a measured performances that perhaps reins in a little too much Bruckner’s explosive outpourings. (Compare it to Solti’s unbridled Romantic splurge of noise.) Hopefully, someone will press Celibidache’s live recordings of the symphonies for EMI–performances that reach such a level of quasi-mystical heights you might want to listen to it in segments (a few times when an especially tense climax builds and breaks into resolution you can actually Celibidache give a shout of what sounds like relief). And after that hypothetical label presses those hypothetical recordings, maybe they could, hypothetically, continue with the rest of his discography?

Until then, Jochum on DG is a true impresario with the symphonies.

Haydn Seek

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Most composers complete around 9 or 10 symphonies. Mozart has an astounding 41. So it’s pretty remarkable that Joseph Haydn’s symphonies number 104 in total. For this record, Crossroads comes through with another silly design to match “The Chase”, the subtitle of Haydn’s Symphony No. 73. Three horseman are jumping a hedge, while the fourth sits hidden and picnicking with the fox they’re apparently pursuing. Both symphonies on the album are characteristically light, with spots of humor, and tightly structured. Put another way: very Haydn-esque.

A Trio of Rimskys

 

Known for his ridiculously popular Flight of the Bumblebee and Scheherazade, Rimsy-Korsakov was part of The Five, which sounds like the title of a Netflix crime show, but was actually a collective of Russian composers that included Borodin and Mussorgsky. (It’s also the title of a Netflix crime show). Here’s three colorful albums of obscure orchestral works from the composer. The two Mercury sleeves are as Russian as it gets, while the London cover is all about Persian appropriation in the gaudiest way.

And if you need more R-K in your life, visit Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, a classical music-themed coffee and desert establishment in Portland, Oregon.

A Wagner for All Seasons

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A compilation of Wagner from various operas, performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of near-ubiquitous Eugene Ormandy. Thanks in part to the famous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, “Ride of the Valkyries” is one of the most recognizable pieces in the canon, in addition to being the most German thing ever. Less known are its cameos in two dozen or so other films, including 8 1/2, Rebel Without A Cause, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and even Blues Brothers. Along with Carmina Burana and Holst’s The Planets, Wagner’s sound is about as cinematic as it comes.

Postmodern Quiet

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A 1968 release of John Cage’s quiet Concerto for Prepared Piano & Orchestra and Lukas Foss’s equally subtle series of orchestral variations in the Baroque mode. Both composers are challenging and known to make audiences disgruntled and uncomfortable (Cage’s 4:33 is, after all, the musical counterpart to Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain”) and both were about as avant-garde as you could be. The Nonesuch wraparound gatefold art sleeve here blends the classical and the abstract in a fitting collage harkening to dadaist pastiche.