Saturday, February 16, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #1

Brahms is often referred to as "the third B" (following Bach and Beethoven) of the giants of classical music. But what's so compelling to me about Brahms was his self-critical nature and the ridiculously high-standards he set for himself. He constantly denigrated his compositions, even destroying much of his own work that was in his opinion substandard.

If this guy thought his work was substandard, where does that leave the rest of us?

To me the lesson here is that a creator can be the worst judge of his own work, and you should never let self-criticism interfere with your creative output.

Now if I could just do that myself...

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Leonard Bernstein and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Johannes Brahms
Symphony #1
Academic Festival Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1983
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If you want to look for particularly gripping passages of Brahms' First Symphony, you can start by listening closely to the first few minutes of the second movement, which opens with a moving string passage and flows into a beautiful solo by the oboe.

This symphony is so beautiful and so powerful (when performed well) that I consider it a critical early building block of any classical musical collection. However, I have two quibbles with the specific recording that I have, so I do not recommend you buying the actual Deutsche Grammophon CD from my collection that I list above. Just get a different recording--you can start by taking a look at the link below in this post.

In any case, on to the quibbles, which I include here more for humor value than anything else:

One problem is a few pretty bad out-of-tune moments in the fourth movement. The worst is in the passage that begins at about the 4:27 mark in the fourth movement, when the trombones softly play the key theme, and somebody in the trombone section really lets out a couple of bad off-key notes there. This is for me the emotional climax of the symphony, and I just can't bear to hear this passage with that guy in there muffing it up for everybody else.

The other quibble I have is more surreal: at the 2:57 to 3:03 mark in the second movement you can actually hear Leonard Bernstein mumbling the melody to himself along with the orchestra. You'll need good headphones and a decent ear to hear this but it's definitely there. It's such a bizarre thing to hear in a professionally-recorded symphony that I could hardly believe my own ears. But then it happens again in the second movement, at the 9:36 to 9:38 mark and then again at one or two other places in the recording! Weird. Granted, it's a live recording and I guess he was really getting into it, so good for him.




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