December 12, 2019


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Ernő Dohnányi: Symphony No. 1; Symphonic Minutes. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Roberto Paternostro. Capriccio. $16.99.

Brahms: Three Intermezzi, Op. 117; Six Klavierstücke, Op. 118; Robert Chumbley: Brahmsiana II; Jonathan Cziner: Echoes of Youth. Steven Masi, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     Although Brahms spent many years worrying about following in the symphonic footsteps of Beethoven, and although toward the end of his life he became unsure of his own place in music as Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and Schoenberg began their ascent, his influence was in fact extremely wide-ranging and continues even today. Tonal and non-descriptive his music certainly was, but for that very reason it has a purity and emotional power that many other composers, for all their contortions in seeking meaning, found difficult if not impossible to attain. The first release in Edward Gardner’s cycle of Brahms symphonies for Chandos shows yet again just how distinctive Brahms’ work was and, as a result, how much influence it had and continues to have. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra does not have the full warmth of sound, especially in the strings, of the best European orchestras, but it has welcome clarity of its entire string complement, so that there is not a hint of the muddiness that occasionally afflicts Brahms performances. The orchestra’s winds are quite fine and its brass, although it too does not have as burnished a sound as some brass sections of other top orchestras, plays with strength and fervor that helps makes parts of these familiar symphonies especially effective – in particular, both finales benefit from the orchestra’s sound. Gardner paces the music well and without fussiness – another aspect of the overall clarity of these performances – and if one occasionally wishes for a bit more heft (at the end of the introduction to the last movement of No. 1, for example), there are plenty of instances in which Gardner’s no-nonsense approach pays considerable dividends. This is somewhat streamlined Brahms, with a directness in its communication that shows Gardner to be willing to step back from forcing a specific ebb and flow and simply let Brahms’ music proceed as the composer intended (which means close and welcome adherence to most of the tempo markings). The Third actually benefits more from this than does the First: the later symphony begins strongly and propels itself ahead vigorously, and its finale recaptures that mood in a way that is not exactly light but also not at all portentous, with the quiet ending thus coming across as especially effective. Brahms’ symphonies are ever-new, and there always seems to be something additional to be found in them – in this case, by Gardner and thus by listeners.

     Ernő Dohnányi (equally well-known as Ernst von Dohnányi) certainly found a great deal in Brahms, and indeed, Dohnányi’s Symphony No. 1 (1900) comes across as an expanded version of Brahms’ already expansive symphonic works. Dohnányi here produces a five-movement symphony longer than any by Brahms (55 minutes) and quite determinedly in a minor key (D minor). It is a sprawling work without the tightly knit focus of Brahms’ symphonies, yet its debt to them is abundantly clear in the sheer sound that Dohnányi seeks: the music requires tremendous heft, excellent sectional balance, and tonal warmth from the entire orchestra. It gets all that from the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Roberto Paternostro on a new Capriccio recording that displays the symphony in its best light – and, as a result, also shows its flaws. These are partly in the degree to which Dohnányi follows Brahms harmonically and tonally, and partly in the somewhat unwieldy sheer scale of the symphony. Dohnányi’s first and final movements are the symphony’s longest and, as in Brahms’ First, are almost equal to each other in length; indeed, it takes roughly the same amount of time to perform all four of these movements. But while Brahms relieves tension with his Andante sostenuto and then presents a kind of intermezzo rather than a scherzo, Dohnányi opts for a large slow movement marked Molto adagio and then adds both a scherzo and an intermezzo. It is all a bit too much for the musical material to bear, especially in light of the fact that Dohnányi’s concluding movement does not have the heft or forward propulsiveness of Brahms’. On the other hand, Dohnányi wrote his Symphony No. 1 at the age of just 23, while Brahms’ First was not completed until the composer was 20 years older than that, so a certain amount of understanding is in order – especially when a performance is handled as well as Paternostro manages this one. And it is worth noting that Dohnányi absorbed and then moved past his attachment to Brahms – quite certainly so by the time of Symphonic Minutes, a neat little five-movement suite from 1933. Here the movements zip by in 15 minutes, less than the time needed for just the first movement of Symphony No. 1, and here Dohnányi’s stylistic élan and personality are fully formed and very much in evidence throughout. Symphonic Minutes was originally written to be danced, and the work is bright and upbeat throughout, sometimes sparkling and witty, other times elegant, still other times dreamlike. The tonality is still essentially that of Brahms, but the miniaturization of the material is highly contrasted with the expansive nature for which both Brahms and earlier works by Dohnányi are known.

     Brahms’ own later pieces, however, often have a succinctness that in no way reduces their communicative potential. In particular, his final four works for solo piano, Opp. 116-119, are intimate, personal, nostalgic, mostly quiet, and very much unlike his earlier, expansive, virtuosic and large-scale piano music. Pianist Steven Masi uses this fact to excellent effect on a new Navona CD on which he plays Brahms’ Op. 117 and Op. 118 – plus two contemporary pieces that are responses to and commentaries upon Brahms’ music. This could easily degenerate into an exchange of consonance for dissonance, a set of variations unrecognizable in their relationship to Brahms’ original material, or some other form of “tribute” that would be self-aggrandizing and would not elucidate anything. But that is not what happens here, thanks to the genuineness of Robert Chumbley’s and Jonathan Cziner’s respect for Brahms and for what Masi is trying to do (Cziner’s work was actually commissioned by Masi). First, Masi plays the Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, sensitively and pensively, bringing forth their rather resigned and elegiac elements – ones that are usually described in Brahms as “autumnal,” an overused adjective that actually fits this music well. “Crepuscular” and “nocturnal” are other apt descriptions of these three works, especially in the sensitive way in which Masi handles them. He follows them with Chumbley’s Brahmsiana II, itself a set of three intermezzos – which contain no quotations at all from Brahms’ Op. 117 but are directly inspired by it in their mood, overall feeling, and most of their pacing. They do look beyond Brahms harmonically, but they are not filled with dissonance for its own sake, and in fact Chumbley shows himself determined to maintain Brahms’ essential lyricism while bringing his musical language into the present day. After this work, Masi plays Brahms’ Op. 118, which includes four intermezzi, a ballade and a romance, and which alternates in mood between intensity and deep resignation – these pieces were dedicated to Clara Schumann, whom Brahms obviously adored for decades but who only respected him. Although the overall mood of the six pieces, taken as a totality, is somewhat lighter than the mood of the three works in Op. 117, the final piece in Op. 118 is genuinely tragic in feeing and leaves a lasting impression of almost unbearable sadness. Masi is at his best here, capturing the multiplicity of moods of the whole set of six pieces while dwelling to just the right degree on the emotional depth of the last one. Cziner’s Echoes of Youth follows this, and while the juxtaposition is a trifle awkward – it is hard for anything to follow Op. 118, No. 6 – Cziner is as attuned to Brahms’ feelings and musical approaches in his way as Chumbley is in his. Cziner offers four pieces, including two intermezzi, a romance and a ballade – and intriguingly gives the intermezzi titles that are well-known to Brahmsians: Frei Aber Einsam, “free but lonely,” which violinist Joseph Joachim considered his personal motto, and Frei Aber Froh, “free but joyful,” which was Brahms’ counter to his friend’s downbeat statement. Yet Cziner uses the Joachim motto for the second intermezzo, which is the last of the four pieces, and that fact, along with the character of the music, results in a final feeling of reflective melancholy that fits very well indeed with the deeper and more troubling impression left at the end of Brahms’ Op. 118. Cziner, like Chumbley, does not hesitate to use more-modern compositional materials than Brahms employed, but here too they are employed judiciously and never simply for effect. What Chumbley and Cziner do here, led and abetted by Masi, is to have a kind of pianistic conversation with late-in-life Brahms, empathizing with him while showing that his feelings, thoughts and music remain quite relevant to musicians and audiences in the 21st century. That is a very impressive accomplishment for everyone involved: Masi, Chumbley, Cziner, and Brahms himself.

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