Thursday, November 8, 2012

Good Old German Engineering

It seems like the November Masterworks concert always includes my favorite piece of the year- and frequently turns out to be the most challenging. November 2008 brought Beethoven’s 7th, 2009 featured Petrouschka, 2010 Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, and last year the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. This year continues the phenomenon with the Brahms 4th.

In my undergraduate days at the Hartt School, we were required to take an assembly class called “Musicianship.” It was a weekly assembly that from week to week featured a potpourri of performers (e.g. percussionist Colin Wolcott, violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and Josef Szigeti), lecturers, student performances and faculty appearances (such as Jackie Maclean, Gary Karr and Charles Treger). One lecturer did a program on how Brahms’ 4th was really an homage to Mozart. I have forgotten most of the details of his presentation, but one that stuck with me was that the keys of the Brahms symphonies (#1 in C, #2 in D, #3 in F and #4 in E) turned out to be the opening 4 notes of the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony; to wit, c-d-f-e. Coincidence? Probably not.

One doesn’t usually equate humor with the music of Brahms, but the third movement (Allegro giocoso) of the 4th Symphony is probably Brahms at his punchiest. Before I ever played the symphony I was exposed to an abridged rendition of the third movement by the rock band Yes. On their Fragile l.p., a track entitled Cans and Brahms featured keyboardist Rick Wakeman going nuts on a variety of synthesizers, which had literally just been invented. When I heard the rest of the symphony, I realized that the 3rd movement was there for comic relief. The rest of the work is thoughtful and moving. The first movement is a staple on violin auditions and draws the listener in with its pregnant pauses and mood swings. The second movement, Andante moderato, is full of tender moments and majestic alpine harmony, reflecting his surroundings summering in the Austrian Alps. The last movement (Allegro energico e passionato) runs the gamut from tumultuous to placid. With its passacaglia form, it strikes the perfect balance of beauty and intellect.

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