Archive for Harmonielehre

Never mind the Brahms, hear the Adams.

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by telescoper

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.


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