This year I have decided to take a more systematic approach to my music listening. For several years now I have been exploring the world of classical music with a voracious appetite, and acquiring CDs at a breakneck (and break-bank) rate. It has been a very enjoyable adventure. It is true, however, that I have tended to sacrifice intimate knowledge of the masterworks in favour of the search for new and interesting repertoire. The time has come to redress that misbalance, so this year I plan to focus each month on a small set of works, and take the time to get to know them better.
Brahms: Symphonies 1-4. I’ve always liked the idea of liking the music of the bearded bard Brahms, but with the exception of his German Requiem I haven’t listened to much of his music with close attention. His four symphonies are all much admired, standard repertoire works. I listened to the following recordings:
Symphony No. 1, Op.68: Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI)
Symphony No. 2, Op.73: Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI); Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG)
Symphony No. 3, Op.90: Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI); Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DG)
Symphony No. 4, Op.98: Kleiber; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (DG)
Of the four, my favourite is the first. Brahms worked on it, off and on, for about 20 years before finally publishing it. He was notoriously self-critical in all his works, but especially so in the symphonic genre where the mighty shadow of Beethoven loomed over him. Despite that pressure, when it was finally done it was brilliant. The opening notes announce the arrival of a serious work: majestic, yet underwritten by an ominous drumbeat. The second movement Andante is yearning, delicate, and sweet, and leads naturally to the genial third movement which begins like an adventurous walk in the countryside, but develops into what sounds like a contest. The expansive fourth movement crowns the work; it is based around a dramatic conflict between martial horns and a magnificent, hymn-like melody that gradually gains strength and conquers its opponent.
After toiling for so many hesitant years over his first symphony, its successful reception removed the burden from his back, and his second symphony was completed just a few years later. It is a lighter, friendlier work, full of singing melodies and bright orchestration. It’s difficult not to like it, but perhaps for that same reason I find it difficult to love. Music to love returns in the third symphony, especially in the marvelous third movement built on one of those gorgeous Brahmsian melodies: warm, mellow, and seductive. The fourth symphony I was able to hear only twice, and I confess it did not really come into focus for me. It’s beautiful music, to be sure, and the recording by Kleiber and the Viennese is regarded as one of the finest of this work, but I’ll need to give it at least a few more listens before I have something to say about it.
Shostakovich: String Quartets 1-4. The fifteen string quartets of Shostakovich are among my favourite pieces of music: they are tough, intelligent, always engaging and rewarding. I have tended to concentrate, however, on the later quartets, particularly on the famous No. 8 and the harrowing sequence of Nos. 12-15. This month I turned to the first few early quartets. ‘Early’ is a relative term here, for Shostakovich didn’t begin writing quartets until his thirties and in some sense they are all mature works. I listened to the recordings made by the Emerson String Quartet (DG).
The first quartet (Op.49) is brief (under fifteen minutes) and follows a traditional four-movement structure. It is also a light-hearted work, at least in comparison to his late quartets. (Almost anything, mind you, is light-hearted compared to his late quartets.) It is full of interesting ideas, and one has the feeling it could have been extended into a more expansive work without too much difficulty. The second quartet (Op.68) is my favourite of the batch. It is more than double the length of the first, and is simultaneously more intimate and more inviting. The second movement is built around a beautifully austere solo violin part, the third is a creepy, buzzing waltz, and the final movement – one of the most enjoyable movements of chamber music Shostakovich ever wrote – is an extended set of variations on a folk (or at least folk-sounding) melody. The third quartet (Op.73) is a more unsettling work, anxious and agitated. Its restless opening movements give way to a pensive, sad adagio and though a jaunty song tries to get going in the final movement, it is overtaken and subdued by somber rumination. The fourth quartet (Op.83), like the fourth symphony above, I found difficult. It has a generally melancholy mood and, despite having moments of great lyrical beauty, reaches out further into sustained dissonance than have the previous quartets.
It was a good month, then. I intend to undertake a similar project in March. I haven’t entirely decided yet where I will turn, but I am considering the late symphonies of Jean Sibelius and the three Masses of William Byrd.