Desert Island Discs (4) – Brahms and Mahler

Johannes Brahms composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, in 1858. It was first performed the following year in Hanover, Germany, when Brahms was just 25 years old.

Five days later, at Leipzig, an unenthusiastic audience hissed the concerto, while critics savaged it, labelling it “perfectly unorthodox, banal and horrid.” Both audience and critics were mistaken. The work has long occupied its rightful place in the concert repertoire. “With this work the genius of Brahms shook itself free alike from formalism and vagueness… The final result was inevitably a classical concerto, but one of unprecedented tragic power,” wrote Donald Tovey, in Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume III, Concertos (1936).

The concerto’s epic mood harks back to the tradition of the Beethoven symphony that Brahms sought to emulate. The first movement is by turns fiery and sorrowful. The slow movement is stately and tranquil, possibly a tribute to Brahms’s friend and mentor Robert Schumann. The spellbinding finale is clearly modelled on the last movement of Beethoven’s third piano concerto, while the overall key of D minor/major echoes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mozart’s operatic Piano Concerto No. 20. There is no doubt that it stands at the forefront of romantic concertos, reaching dramatic heights and consolatory depths.

Superlative recordings abound, but I recommend the stunning version of Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire (2006) with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

Gustav Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 2, known as the “Resurrection”, between 1888 and 1894. It was first performed in 1895 and, apart from the Symphony No. 8, it was Mahler’s most popular and successful work during his lifetime. Great works have a long and painful gestation. Mahler completed what would become the first movement of the symphony as a single-movement symphonic poem called Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). In 1893, he composed the second and third movements, but lingered long over what came next, aware that by considering a vocal finale he would be inviting comparison with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. In 1894, attending the funeral of conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, he heard a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), which “struck him like lightning.” Mahler used the first two verses of Klopstock’s hymn, then added verses of his own dealing more explicitly with redemption and resurrection. Having completed the finale, he inserted the song Urlicht (Primal Light) before it.

Mahler devised a narrative programme for the work, which he told to a number of friends. The first movement represents a funeral and asks “Is there life after death?” The second movement is a wistful recollection of happy times in the life of the deceased. The third movement represents a view of life as meaningless activity. The fourth movement (Urlicht) is a wish for release from a life without meaning. And the finale – after a return of the doubts of the third movement and the questioning of the first – ends with a grandiose affirmation of everlasting renewal. It is one of the great moments in symphonic writing.

Every conductor of stature has recorded this symphony. Among the “greats” are Bernstein, Klemperer, Kubelik, Barbirolli, Solti, Karajan, Tennstedt, Haitink, Chailly, and Rattle. I recommend all of these, but especially Claudio Abbado (2003) with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

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