Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Retrospect: Brahms Symphony #3, Op. 90: still an analytical enigma

In June and July, when I drove around locally and had my car radio on, PBS station WETA played various performances of the enigmatic Symphony #3 in F Major by Johannes Brahms several times, with various conductors including Giulini and Abbado. My own CD is a slow-paced performance from Leonard Bernstein.

I have to preface my comments by a quote from some young person’s concert in my own piano days of the 1950s: “I will play Brahms. You may not like it, but it will be good for you.” Some people do find listening to Brahms (apart from the First Symphony) like eating your vegetables.

I’ve always found the Third (Op. 90) a curious work, following Brahms triumphant #1 and then the relaxed and then ebulliently explosive #2. F Major sounds like a strange key for a symphony, as the most pastoral of all the tonalities (hence Beethoven 6 and then 8).

But the opening of the work: A F Major chord, then a diminished 7th emphasizing the minor A-flat, then major, then descending on the minor, seems not at all ironic or martial in character as such major-minor shifts do in Mahler (or even Schubert); instead, the effect is that of self-analysis, of soliloquy, the kind of that famous song in Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”. (Say, the work, like Gershwin's Piano Concerto, is F, rather than specifically F Major.) Brahms, with all is compound and syncopated rhythms and excursions to remote keys like A and D major, seems to be annotating his own style of composition with his exercises in unresolved dissonance and long lasting tension that follow (no doubt inspired by a single moment in Beethoven’s Eroica). This was a very daring work harmonically for 1883.

The second movement, an Andante, and the official “slow movement”, actually works in its dominant key C Major, and stays with the ear. It’s the “minuet” or Poco Allegretto that is the most famous from this work, and the most common on YouTube (the Berlin Philharmonic offers a trailer of it), and it moves more slowly than the official “slow movement”, and it sounds like real Brahms, not like a Landler. The movement figured in the 1961 French film “Aimez-Vous Brahms” (about a love rectangle) which I saw with a friend in Williamsburg as a college freshman just before my debacle at William and Mary, well documented elsewhere in these blogs.

The finale goes back to the tonic, but F minor, with a Hungarian style theme reminding one of the early piano sonatas. The music fakes a triumphant resolution but settles, in the descending figures from the first movement opening, into a quiet close, the only Brahms symphony to do so. All four movements end quietly.

Brahms represents one major arm of German romanticism, the "disciplined" style derived from Beethoven. Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss (eventually Schoenberg and Berg) seem to me more dervied from Schubert, with Liszt and Wagner entering on their own (and also eventually inspiring "modern" atonality).

Berlin Philharmonic teaser follows:

Still photo: glass blowing kiln in Jamestown VA; I think I visited it Thanksgiving Day 1961 with parents and a friend; this is my photo from Aug. 2009.

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