Never mind the Brahms, hear the Adams.

People keep telling me how wonderful the music of Johannes Brahms is and, although he’s never been a favourite of mine, I’ve always been willing to accept that this was basically down to my ignorance and that I should persevere.

Yesterday I had an opportunity to have another go at Brahms, in the form of a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall which comprised two pieces completely new to me, one of which was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, featuring Lars Vogt. Not knowing anything about the piece beforehand, other than that quite a few people I know told me it was brilliant, I went with as few preconceptions as possible.

This is a much larger work than the typical piano concerto.  Spread over four meaty movements rather than the more usual three, it lasts about 45 minutes and in places it feels more like a symphony which happens to a have a piano part than a piano concerto per se. I think I was expecting something more overtly virtuosic too, and this work isn’t really like that, although it must be hard to play because it requires quite a lot of muscle from time to time. There are passages of great beauty, especially in the elegaic slow (3rd) movement, wherein there is a beautiful singing cello part, and in the swelling orchestral climaxes of the first two movements. The intricate and very artful last movement involves so many different themes coming in an playing off against each other that it’s difficult to keep track.

Conducted by Thierry Fischer, the Orchestra was a bit slow to get into the swing of it and I felt some of the playing early on was a bit flat where it is clearly supposed to be full of heroic grandeur. Perhaps this was partly because of the disappointing attendance – St David’s Hall couldn’t have been half full despite a price of only £20 for stalls seats.

Apart from the slightly disappointing opening, I enjoyed this first part of the concert. A lot, in fact. I certainly found the music impressive in its craftsmanship and vision. But if you ask me if it moved me, I’d have to say no. It left me a bit cold, I’m afraid. I guess Brahms doesn’t really speak my language. On the other hand, this is a piece which probably should be heard more than once to appreciate it fully, as it is rather a lot to take in one go. I’m keen to get a good recording of it so I can do that at home. I’d welcome recommendations through the comments box, in fact, as my personal jury is still out as far as Brahms is concerned.

The second half of the concert was quite a different matter. John Adams wrote  Harmonielehre in 1985, about a hundred years after Brahms composed his second Piano Concerto. The title is taken from a book on musical composition by Arnold Schoenberg. The link between this and the Brahms work is not as tenuous as you might imagine, however, as Schoenberg started his compositional career writing in a late romantic style not so far removed from Brahms. It was only later that he turned to atonalism and, eventually, serialism.

Although its harmonic structure is  complex, and some of the structures Adams uses are similar to those you might find in Schoenberg, at least relatively early on while he was still experimenting,  Harmonielehre is  not really an atonal work. In each sequence the music does hover around a  tonal centre although it times the music strains against its own centre of gravity.

And although he deploys some devices associated with minimalism – insistent, percussive repetition, recurrent motifs, a quasi-static chordal framework and very gradual development and transformation – this isn’t really a minimalist work either.

It’s the fact that it’s so hard to categorize this work that makes it so fascinating and exciting. Other passages seem to echo other composers, especially Gustav Mahler (who died in 1911, the same year that Schoenberg wrote the book Harmonielehre). It’s as if Adams decided to take the end of the romantic period as a starting point but map out a very different route from there to that pioneered by Schoenberg.

If all this sounds very academic then I’m doing a great disservice to the piece. It’s actually a complete blast to listen to, from start to finish. It begins in exhilirating fashion with a thunderous breakneck sequence like a rollercoaster ride that eventually dissolves into a lyrical string theme. The second movement is where the strong echoes of Mahler can be found – there’s also a passage where a solo trumpet plays a lonely theme over disjointed chords which reminded me greatly of Miles Davies and Gil Evans. The last movement is in perfect contrast – fully of energy and exuberance, it ends with thrilling waves of sound crashing and reforming and crashing again. Nothing short of ecstatic.

I went to this concert almost completely preoccupied with the question of whether I would “get” Brahms’ Piano Concerto, but after the finale of Harmonielehre I had almost forgotten Brahms entirely. You could easily tell which piece the musicians enjoyed most too, as there were broad grins and mutual applause all across the stage as they took their bows. This was especially true of the percussionists, who were outnumbered by their instruments – bells, marimbas, xylophones, drums, you name it, so had to run backwards and forwards whenever needed to man the barricades.

The audience loved it too. Bravo.

P.S. The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a future date.


11 Responses to “Never mind the Brahms, hear the Adams.”

  1. mike barrie Says:

    The final chapter of Alex Ross’s “Listen to This” is devoted to Brahms. One of his comments is that it is very rare to hear a modern performance or recording of Brahms that does the work justice. Ross doesn’t give a recommended recording for the second Piano Concerto but does advocate Clifford Curzon (LSO, Szell) for the first (“Brahms at his darkest and boldest”).

  2. I agree, the Adams was tremendous.

    It’s a great shame so many people are so unadventurous, and only go to concerts of familiar music

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    It is interesting that Peter is not a particular fan of the music of Brahms.

    I believe strongly that personal tastes in music vary greatly between people. For example, my relative lack of enthusiasm for Mozart (excepting the operas) surprises many people, as sometimes does my indifference to Chopin. I do enjoy Brahms, particularly the concertos (though the Double Concerto can sound a little plodding at times), and I have great respect for the Second Piano Concerto. I am sometimes a little more equivocal about the Brahms symphonies, but generally enjoy them.

    I have no particular preferences for recordings of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, so I shall not suggest one based on personal opinions.

    One useful reference source for finding quality recordings of pieces of classical music is the BBC Radio Three Building a Library programme. The programme has produced a PDF format summary of their top recommendations from the period 1999-2010. The top choice in a review from September 2001 of a stereo recording of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was a performance by Stephen Kovacevich and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis (Philips 442 109-2). The top recommendation then was actually a 1947 mono recording by Solomon with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Dobrowen (but I would steer clear of historic performances unless I already knew a piece from a stereo recording first).

    The performance of Harmonielehre by John Adams sounds excellent and must have been fun. I did attend an interesting performance of his Doctor Atomic Symphony about a year ago given by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adams himself, which consisted of music taken from his opera. That was a good experience.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I hope I made it clear that I did enjoy the Brahms and I found much to admire in the Concerto and in the way it was performed. What I was trying to say was that the music didn’t affect me in the very personal way I find with, e.g., Mahler. It’s a similar difference for me between Liszt (who leaves me as cold as Brahms does) and Chopin, who I love very much. Some music really gets under your skin and some just doesn’t. It’s hard to explain why, because it’s not a rational response but an emotional one.

  5. I think you have to perform (and listen to) the Brahms as if it were Mozart .. intimately. If you don’t get it within the first few bars – just horn and piano – no point carrying on. Try to make it too ‘big’ and it turns out pompous and violent.

    Curzon is usually recommended (though his most renowned record is Brahms no.1) – see if you can find Serkin … but the most relaxed and easy-living recording is Backhaus, paired with Mozart’s last concerto on Decca.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Peter, I regard myself as a Brahms fan, but I think some of the music is stuff you admire rather than finding it life-changing. I’d personally put the 2nd piano concerto in that category. Before giving up on him, can I make a couple of recommendations that might change your view? You can find the following tracks easily using the free streaming service at “spotify open”, which has been a great discovery for me over the last year. Type the following in the search box

    brahms last furtwangler

    This gets you the finale of the first symphony as played by furtwangler in what he knew was his final Berlin concert in early 1945. He was about to flee to Switzerland to escape arrest. If that doesn’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck, Brahms really isn’t for you.

    Assuming you pass that test, I’d switch from the relatively young red-blooded Brahms to the haunting melancholy of the very late works. I don’t think you can do better than this spotify search:

    brahms 118 A Major perahia

    • telescoper Says:


      Thanks. I’ll definitely check those out. As I said in the post, I’m basically a Brahms ignoramus, particularly in respect of the larger works, but there are a few pieces I’ve known for a while and do like a lot. Among these is the String Sextet Op. 18, which I found on a CD, incongruously paired with a Schoenberg, and which has grown on my steadily over about 20 years.


  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    I notice that there is a review in the Guardian of Peter’s concert. The review is positive, though not quite ecstatic.

    I agree with John Peacock about Brahms’s late piano works, although my favourite would be the opus 117 Intermezzi. And in relation to Murray Perahia and Brahms, I did have the pleasure of hearing Perahia play the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (an early work) in a really good concert two years ago.

  8. What is the most Brahmsy Brahms? Yes, the First Symphony (played by almost anyone before 1970) is his blockbuster, but if you appreciate the Bb string sextet, there’s one more sextet, two more string quintets (op.111 particularly : and three string quartets.

    Of the piano pieces, I think the Ballades – early works – are actually the most characteristic and sincere. Try Katchen or Gould (yes, Gould!).

    And you should certainly listen to some songs – Hans Hotter did an amazing job with some of them.

  9. here’s a better Op.111 :

  10. Says:

    Brahms’ 2nd: Rubinstein is usually excellent, my favourite being with the Boston Symphony conducted by Charles Munch, though I have no seen it available for years. Unbelievably engaging, moving and – yes – warm

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