Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #3

The Third is the most overlooked of Brahms' symphonies. In fact, The Essential Canon of Classical Music (which has become a veritable bible to me as I write this blog) gives the work only three bare sentences, saying that the Third "is infused with a genial lyricism," a phrase I view to be more condescending than insightful.
Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies
Philips, 1989
I consider this symphony simple and direct. It is a pearl. And it has one element that at the time was considered shocking in its originality: a quiet, peaceful ending during an era of loud and drawn-out symphonic climaxes. With the minor exception of an out of tune clarinetist (more on this below), this is an excellent recording.

Before we get to the listener notes, let's spend a brief moment on my favorite pet peeve: atrociously written liner notes. Here's a particularly inscrutable line from Bernard Jacobson, who wrote the text accompanying this CD:

"In the quest for organic unity the Third Symphony admittedly relies as pervasively as its companion works on intricate developments of motivic detail."

I suppose he could say that the themes are complex and detailed, but that just doesn't have quite the same pseudo-intellectual heft, does it?

Listener Notes for Brahms' Third Symphony:
1) This symphony starts out lightly, with none of the seriousness and gravitas of Brahms' First or Fourth Symphonies. Of course that means more emphasis on the woodwinds, which as we've seen before aren't exactly the forte of the Philadelphia Orchestra. And unfortunately it's the clarinet who's the worst offender in this recording. Listen to the clarinet at 0:59, 1:26-1:40 and 2:20 in the first movement and tell me you agree that this musician has a poor tone and is often out of tune.

2) In the beginning of the second movement, the clarinet soloist is again out of tune on many notes. I find it hard to believe the the Philly Orchestra has a clarinetist with such a tin ear. The first minute or so of this movement is painful--and I mean fingernails-on-a-chalkboard painful.

It's unfortunate, because when a clarinet is played really well, it sounds so mournful, so unutterably sad and beautiful, that there's just no instrument like it. But when played poorly or off-key, this unforgiving instrument can make even professionals sound like high school hacks. I'll attempt to stop complaining about this now.

3) Notice at 7:48 in the second movement, the trombones enter with a chord that is off key. I actually blame Brahms for errors like this--one of the liabilities of composing a symphony where you keep wind players sitting there not playing for periods of 10 minutes or more, is their instruments cool down. When the instrument cools down, the acoustics change, and this can especially be a problem with brass instruments, particularly long coiled brass instruments like the french horn and trombone. So let's give the trombones a bit of a break here and lay the blame on Brahms instead. Plus, it doesn't take the trombones long to get back in sync with each other. By the next entrance they make, at 8:20 and then again at 8:28, they nail their chords perfectly.

4) Despite the minor mistakes by our friends in the clarinet and trombone section, doesn't the second movement end beautifully?

5) The third movement is a perfect showcase for Philly's exceptionally expressive string section. When I listen to works like this heartrending third movement, it makes me feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth, simply because I'm alive and able to experience music like this.

6) What's your take on how this symphony ends? I find myself struggling for a way to write about it. It's not really fair to say that it goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, nor is it fair to say it ends in an anti-climax. I guess it's just best to just listen it rather than to try to do it justice by describing it in words.


Chantal said...

How true #5 is, when you mention how lucky you are to experience music like that! There are times when I'm engrossed in a CD, or a concert particularly, where I close my eyes and think "Things can't get any better right now". I love that feeling!

Daniel Koontz said...

Thanks for your comment Chantal! It's a great feeling, isn't it?