Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 27, 2009
MOZART'S BIRTHDAY! And here I sit thinking about Brahms, because a friend asks me what it is about Brahms I don't like.
Well, not that it matters: it's, I think, his need to be Mozart after Beethoven, or his desire, which may be the same thing, somehow to mediate the two. Impossible, of course, since Mozart and Beethoven are antithetical.
There are Brahms pieces I genuinely like: meaning, pieces that give me great pleasure to hear. The two Serenades, certainly. The Variations on a Theme by Haydn, if not heard too often. The Liebeslieder Waltzes. The clarinet sonatas.
The Second Symphony, though here I am never sure whether it's truly Brahms that pleases me so much, or the fond memories of hearing Bruno Walter's recording of the Second so many times while courting.
Brahms seems to me an oddly uneasy commutation among Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann. I smell the cigar in his heavier work, and the cigar is rarely lit. Don't even talk about his German Requiem.
It doesn't help that he's so often so badly played. String quartets tear into his music as if he'd written it for wire strings: cf. the Cleveland Quartet. Pianists smash away at his keyboard music, which is so often gentle and innig.
Conductors know that He. Is. Very. Important. and beat that into everyone nearby, beginning with the concertmaster. Only once have I really heard a satisfying orchestral interpretation live: when Niklaus Wyss accompanied I don't recall what violinist in the Violin Concerto, and led the [San Francisco Symphony] orchestra throughout in a gentle, conversational performance that let you see poor Brahms never really wanted to be Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I don't think the Mozart-after-Beethoven problem can ever be resolved, though perhaps it was most successfully evaded in the two Brahms pieces he didn't live to compose: Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto and Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with string orchestra. Perhaps it's only in the final years that one learns to finesse such things.