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Thread: Johannes Brahms - Composer of the Week, January 8, 2007

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    Default Johannes Brahms - Composer of the Week, January 8, 2007

    JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)

    Early days: Johannes Brahms was born on 7 May 1833 in Hamburg, Germany, the son of an orchestral string bass player, Johann Jakob Brahms. His mother’s maiden name was Christiane Nissen, a skilled seamstress, who was 17 years younger than her husband. Brahms’ parents married in 1830. Johannes Brahms was the second child, with an older sister, Elise, and a younger brother, Fritz. His father learned to play several instruments, and earned a living playing in local dance halls. In childhood, Johannes was taught to play the violin by his father, the piano by Otto Cossel from the age of 7, and composition by Eduard Marxsen from the age of 12. He made his piano playing debut at the age of ten. The family was poor, and in order to help financially, from the age of 13, young Brahms earned his living by playing at theatres and festivities, and in taverns and more seedy establishments on the rougher side of Hamburg (known as "adulterers' wharf").

    The beginnings of his musical career: He made his public début as a pianist in Hamburg in September 1848. By the age of 16, he was performing throughout Europe as a concert pianist. During his concert tours, Brahms met many famous musicians and composers who recognized his outstanding musical talent. In 1853 he accompanied the Hungarian violin virtuoso, Reményi, on a concert tour. While in Hanover, he became a friend of the great violinist, Joseph Joachim, (who remained a life long friend and musical colleague) who was impressed by the young Brahms’ compositions. Joachim gave him a letter of introduction to meet Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. Schumann, as well as being an accomplished composer, was the editor of a major German music journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Schumann was so impressed with Brahms that he proclaimed him as a genius in his famous article: "Neue Bahnen" (New Paths) in the October 1853 edition of the journal. This glowing report catapulted Brahms into the public arena. Robert, and his famous pianist/composer wife Clara Schumann, decided to allow Brahms, age 20, to take up residence with them in their home in Düsseldorf. In 1854, however, Brahms moved away to become Director of Court Concerts and Choral Society for the Prince of Lippe-Detmold. In February 1854 Robert Schumann attempted suicide, and Brahms returned to Düsseldorf. Schumann spent the next two years and 5 months in a mental asylum. During this time, Brahms helped with household chores and visited Robert Schumann regularly in the asylum. Robert Schumann died at the age of 46, in July 1856. The following shows a picture of the young Brahms and Clara Schumann.



    Personal life: After the death of Robert Schumann, Brahms continued his friendship with Clara, and remained at the Schumann home, while taking up the family’s financial burdens until Clara Schumann was able to cope by a resumption of her piano-playing career. Such was his devotion that this involved a temporary suspension of his professional career. Clara was one of the 19th Century’s most gifted pianists, and a competent composer, and Brahms eventually fell in love with her. He remained a bachelor all of his life, although he had several romances with others. This love for Clara later mellowed into veneration of her, and they remained very close friends and musical colleagues until their deaths in the 1890’s. They used to write to each other regularly, and to meet occasionally, and scarcely would Brahms compose a piece of music without consulting Clara over it. It was not long before Clara realised that some of his music was dedicated to her, in the same way that much of her deceased husband’s music was also dedicated to her. Despite persistent rumours of an even closer relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, it being one of the major scandals in the musical world for a time, there is no reason to believe that Clara was unfaithful and she remained devoted to her deceased husband, Robert. She was undoubtedly one of the 19 th Century's greatest piano performers, and majored on the works of Schumann and Brahms in her highly regarded European-wide concert performances.

    Resumption of career: In 1857 Clara moved to Berlin, and Brahms returned to Hamburg where he worked as the court pianist, chamber musician, and Conductor of the Court Choir. In 1860 he signed a famous manifesto opposing the ‘new music’ methods adopted by Franz Liszt and his followers, and thereafter Brahms was in the vanguard of opposition to the Wagnerian school in German music. He later applied for the post of conductor in Hamburg but was rejected.

    Move to Vienna 1862: Vienna was the city of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and it attracted Brahms who first moved there in 1862 on a semi-permanent basis. He later travelled to other cities but finally settled in Vienna in 1868, where he lived for most of the following 29 years. He conducted the Vienna Singakademie during the 1863-4 season. In 1865 his mother died, and in 1872 his father too. In 1872 he succeeded Rubinstein as the artistic director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, holding this post until 1875 when he resigned. Thereafter, he did not hold any official posts, in order that he could be in a position to dedicate himself completely to composing and touring as a concert pianist.

    Personality/life-style: He was a touchy individual at times, and some thought of him as rather prickly. He liked his privacy and his opinions were precise. However, he was very sociable and had many friends, but never wanted to be the centre of attention. He is said to have dressed shabbily, often in cheap, worn clothing. He lived modestly, content with simple living quarters spending most of his time in a small, three-room lodging in Vienna. He had a favourite tavern, The Red Hedgehog, in Vienna. He grew his beard around 1878. Although Brahms was an atheist, nevertheless he kept a Bible by his bedside.

    Conflicts: Brahms was famous for disliking the music of Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner and (to a lesser extent) Mahler. One early incident was when when Brahms fell asleep during Liszt's own performance of his Piano Sonata in B Minor. While he admired Liszt's technical abilities as a pianist, Brahms strongly disapproved of Liszt's music style and what he perceived as the sycophancy of his followers. Many later controversies arose, especially involving Bruckner and Wagner. In this dislike, he was strongly supported by Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, and the three formed the centrepiece of a triumvirate opposed to progressive "music of the future". They were backed by Eduard Hanslick, famous music critic and journalist of the time, in the so-called "War of the Romantics", resulting in polarisation of the public's views and tastes between the two opposing Brahms and Wagnerian camps. Indeed, such polarisation still exists to some extent today. Some of the much publicised conflicts of the time may have exaggerated the true hostility between the main protagonists, even though the public exchanges were quite heated at times. The only important composer of the late 19th century who really could not stand Brahms’ music (and vice versa), and who stated so very clearly, was Tchaikovsky.

    Infuences and Musical coverage: Brahms was essentially a romantic character, and yet he was musically conservative veering much more towards the traditions of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann than later manifestations of the Romantic era (Liszt, Wagner). He admired both Bach and Robert Schumann, but above all others his great hero was Beethoven. A bust of Beethoven bore down on him in his study. He composed works in every musical genre, except opera. He produced monumental works in all of these areas. In all, he wrote 122 opus numbered works, spanning the period 1851-1896, and several works without opus numbers. These works include four symphonies, two piano concertos, overtures, a violin concerto, a violin and cello concerto, solo work for piano and other instruments, a considerable amount of chamber music including his famous piano quintet, choral works like the German Requiem and almost 200 songs.

    Perfectionist: Brahms was a perfectionist in his music. He was a meticulous composer who was rarely satisfied with his work until he had poured over it repeatedly so that it met his exceedingly high standards. For many years he probably suffered a kind of inferiority complex lest he should fail to live up to the great things expected of him in the wake of Schumann’s famous prophesy about him, and, of course, out of Brahms' own deep reverence towards Beethoven. His First Piano Concerto had been a failure at its premiere in Leipzig on 27January 1859, and it was not until nearly 10 years later that he achieved a major success with Ein Deutsches Requiem (i.e. German Requiem). He started work on his First Symphony in the early 1860s (some say even earlier) but it did not appear until 1876, and was not premiered in Vienna, but in Karlsruhe. Brahms felt that Vienna, which at this time worshipped Beethoven, might have found it unacceptable. The premiere actually went quite well, with the main criticism coming from Brahms himself who described his new symphony as "long and not especially amiable." Today, of course, and for many decades, his First Symphony is seen as one of his finest musical creations, indeed, as one of the finest symphonies by any composer of any time. It is sometimes referred to as Beethoven's 10th Symphony.

    Style: He despised “programme music,” and wrote only “absolute” music. His study of the music of earlier composers, including those of the Renaissance, added to the more conservative elements of his music. Compared to Beethoven, Brahms' music has a warmer tone. Excellent examples of this warmth are in the final section of the "Alto Rhapsody", in the finale of his Symphony No. 1, the slow movement of the Symphony No. 4, in many parts of the German Requiem, and the famous Piano Quintet Op. 34. Like Beethoven, one of Brahms' chief talents lies in his ability to craft melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and structural functions into a unified whole. His compositions are rich in complexity, be it in form, counterpoint, harmony, or development. Seldom will there be found any rough edges, or carelessness in composition, in any of Brahms' works. His four symphonies are prime examples of how to introduce novel thematic developments within the classical symphony architecture. His numerous chamber music works are masterpieces almost without exception. His four concertos (two for piano, one for violin and one for violin and cello) are indispensable cornerstones of the concerto repertoire. All these qualities combine to make Brahms one of the truly distinctive voices of the late nineteenth century. The pictures below show Brahms at the peak of his composing career, and a further one of Clara Schumann in later life.



    Novelty: After Beethoven, it would be difficult to argue that any of Brahms' achievements involved completely new thinking, but he often took this ability to possibly new, higher levels. He was perhaps the consummate master of sonata form. For example, there is little to compare with the masterful first movement of his 4th Symphony. He often turned to older forms of expression, and he was almost certainly one of the greatest masters in writing variations in the piano solo area. His late piano pieces (Ops. 116-119) are some of the greatest short piano pieces of the whole repertoire. In addition, while he could write the most delicately beautiful slow pieces such as these Ops. 116-119, his Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Op. 35) rank alongside a handful of other compositions that can be considered among one of the most challenging, and yet high quality, in the repertoire. One criticism of Brahms, which is sometimes heard, is that he had difficulty writing good music unless it contained a piece for piano. This is not justified as, although he remained devoted to the piano, some of Brahms’ greatest works are for other instruments such as clarinet, violin, cello, horn.

    Later Life: In his later life, just as he had earlier helped the Schumanns financially, so he did the same for Dvorák who may not have survived without him. But for this support, the musical world would have been denied the Czech composer's wonderful symphonies and one of the greatest Cello Concertos ever written. In 1889 Brahms was appointed a “Freeman of Hamburg.” By 1890, he had resolved to stop composing and started to abandon uncompleted works. However, he was coaxed out of retirement by the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, and in the period 1891-4 wrote some of his best instrumental pieces including works for clarinet and piano. It has been suggested that his late piano pieces, Ops. 116-119, were kept short so as not to tax too heavily the fragile Clara whose opinions he continued to seek right up to the end of his composing career.

    The end: His sister died in 1892, and his brother in 1895. Brahms’ own 4th Symphony was the last major orchestral work of his own that he ever heard. It was included in a concert given 7 May 1896, to mark his sixty-third birthday. The composer attended, but did not conduct, for he was already fatally ill with liver cancer. Clara Schumann – the great love in the life of two superb composers, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms - died on 20 May 1896 after a stroke. Brahms was one of the pallbearers at her funeral. His own death followed 11 months later, age 63, on 3 April 1897. His funeral was a grand affair and he was buried next to both Schubert and Beethoven in the central cemetery, Vienna. He was a shrewd businessman with his music. After his death, he left a large estate worth more than $100,000, most of it from royalties on his published works. This is all the more remarkable since he was a composer who did not achieve great success until after the age of 40. The pictures below of Brahms show him in his study in 1892, and the other is the last one known, taken in 1896.



    Legacy: Brahms is one of the true greats of classical music. He continued the style of Beethoven, his most admired predecessor, but added new dimensions of greater polish and more fluidity. Later notable composers influenced by him include Dvorak, Elgar, Mahler, Richard Strauss. Schöenberg professed a veneration regarding Brahms, and in 1947 he wrote a famous article "Brahms the Progressive”, albeit this was probably a disingenuous attempt to demonstrate a link between Brahms' method, and that of the modernists, including Schöenberg himself. The truth is that chronologically, while Brahms lived in the late 1800s, stylistically he clung mainly to the days of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, largely immune to the artistic developments of his own day. The great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler wrote in 1934 “There is little difference between the harmony of Brahms around the 90th year and that of Schubert in the 20th year of the same century”.

    My favourite 20 Brahms compositions: in rough order (best first):

    1 Symphony 1 Op. 68 – (1876) Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra
    2 Piano Quintet Op. 34 – (1864) Van Cliburn/Borodin SQ
    3 Symphony 3 Op. 90 – (1883) Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra
    4 German Requiem Op. 45 - (1868) Klemperer/Fischer Dieskau, Schwarzkopf
    5 Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 - (c. 1874) Sir Adrian Boult/LPO/Dame Janet Baker
    6 Piano Concerto No 2 Op. 83 – (1881) Richter/Chicago SO
    7 Symphony 4 Op. 98 – (1885) Harnoncourt/BPO
    8 Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 – (1891) Ralph Manno
    9 Violin & Piano Sonata 3 Op.108 - (c 1888) Anne Sophie Mutter
    10 Piano Trio No 2 Op. 87 (1881) Yale String Quartet
    11 Piano Concerto No 1 Op. 15 (1859) Gerhard Oppitz/Sir Colin Davis
    12 Violin Concerto Op. 77 – (1878) Heifetz/Reiner
    13 Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 – (1880) Sir Adrian Boult/LPO
    14 Concerto for Violin and Cello Op. 102 – (1887) Heifetz/Reiner
    15 Piano Sonata No 3 Op. 5 – (1853) Eric Le Sage
    16 Symphony No. 2 Op. 90 – (1883) Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra
    17 Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56a – (1873) Giulini/Philharmonia
    18 Piano Quartet No 1 Op. 25 – (1861) Rubinstein/Guarneri String Quartet
    19 Rhapsody in B Min Op. 79/1 – (1879) Van Cliburn/Favourite Brahms
    20 Four Pieces for Piano Op. 119 – (1893) Helene Grimaud[/SIZE]


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    Last edited by Topaz; Jan-08-2007 at 15:39.

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    Senior Member Edward Elgar's Avatar
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    Personally I think Brahms' 3rd was the best thing he ever wrote. It's a crying shame that it isn't performed more often due to its quiet ending, yet I feel It's the best ending to any symphony ever. That 3rd movement is also very sexy! Oooh yeah!
    When all the paint has been dried, when all the stone has been carved, music shall remain, and we shall work with what remains.

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    Senior Member Hexameron's Avatar
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    Default My discovery of Brahms and a Case for his Four Hand Arrangements

    I thought I would share with the forum my own unique experience with Brahms, mainly how I discovered his music and what listening to his Symphonies on piano did for me.

    When I was just getting into classical music, I started by route of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. This triumvirate seemed to provide the only comfortable ground for me. Chopin and Tchaikovsky were too deep for me (I'm not kidding). So I never explored any composer after Beethoven. But tastes inevitably grow and we each hear new things for the first time. I gave Chopin a chance and he transformed my taste forever; he helped establish my biased preference for piano solo works. From him, I easily moved on to Liszt who sealed my future as a devoted, perhaps even zealous, piano-composer fan. For 2 years I read much about the Romantic period and the composers who filled the 19th century with masterworks. Through Alan Walker's Liszt biographies, I read a disconcerting anecdote about a young Johannes Brahms falling asleep to Liszt's performance of the Sonata in B minor. By this time, I had recognized the name "Brahms" but I never once sampled any of his music.

    It was the anecdote in Walker's biography that actually turned me off to Brahms. In this anecdote, the scene was set at Liszt's residence, the Altenburg in Weimar. Brahms had arrived there to meet Liszt and brought a few of his unpublished works. Liszt and his entourage of pupils and cohorts found Brahms in one of the music rooms. Liszt went to a table with a pile of Brahms's manuscripts and asked Brahms to play his Scherzo Op. 4. When Brahms was too nervous to oblige, Liszt, without a thought, grabbed the score and went to the piano. He sight-read the entire work with emotional involvement and technical perfection to a dumbfounded but delighted Brahms. While he played, Liszt simultaneously provided his own commentary. Basically, Liszt was his typical generous and good-natured self, always interested in promoting an artist. At this point, a couple of Liszt's friends begged him to play his own newly composed Sonata in B minor. A few minutes after Liszt started, he noticed Brahms dozing off in his chair. Who knows what Liszt felt at that moment, but he continued to pound his way through the work, finished it entirely and left the room... while Brahms continued to snore.

    Call it childish, but I was convinced that Brahms must be a musical ignoramus if he couldn't even stay awake to hear such a monumental work of art, perhaps Liszt's greatest composition, the Sonata in B minor. Some would die to hear Liszt play this colossal work. We're not talking about a trifle either, but a revolutionary pathbreaking work. After reading this anecdote, I immaturely vowed to forever boycott Brahms. However, this all changed when I was browsing through a Barnes and Noble a year later. Moving my fingertips through the Chopin section, I came across a CD of Brahms entitled: "Four Hand Piano Vol. 5, The German Requiem." Someone had put this CD in the Chopin section by mistake. With the audio sampler machine in close proximity, I decided to listen for myself to see what this Brahms was all about.

    Well... the first few bars of the German Requiem (arranged for piano four hands!) managed to strike my fancy immediately. I was breathless from what I heard, especially in the first three movements. Even without the orchestra and voluptuous choral features of the original version, the piano reduction impressed me so much that I went ahead and bought it. That night I listened to its entirety and realized that I had not only overlooked, but almost completely snubbed a genius, a composer who surpassed my expectations and satisfied my yearning for the kind of music only Beethoven and Schubert could produce. I must have listened to that Four Hand piano disc of the German Requiem over and over for a month. That was the power of Brahms's music. No orchestral tone colors or choral textures were needed to hear the magnificence and superior quality of this music.

    Ironically, my interest in Liszt decreased and became dormant. I didn't turn my back on good ol Franz, but I plunged myself headlong into Brahms and only Brahms. With such a sentimental and profound experience from that Naxos series Vol. 5, I decided to buy all 14 volumes online (there are now 17). Thus I could familiarize myself with Brahms's music exclusively through the piano four hand reductions. That may sound outlandish and even foolish; why do that when fine orchestral versions exist? It was the impact that the piano reduction of the German Requiem had on me. Such a recording persuaded me to experience Brahms's original works for the first time through the splendid and dynamic registers of the piano.

    In a month I ingrained all 4 symphonies via the Naxos four hand series. The Symphony No. 1 in C minor, deserved to be named Beethoven's 10th, was all I needed to hear to know that I had made the right choice in purchasing 14 CD's of Brahms's music. From the dark and serious first movement through the lyric and beautiful second movement I was spellbound. The last movement, a homage to the "Ode to Joy," transformed my state of mind. How could I have snubbed the composer of this symphony? Symphony No. 2, 3, and 4 ensued and left me in awe. This music seemed to me to possess the attributes that make Beethoven's works timeless. At once I devoured the excellence of the Tragic Overture, the mindblowing Op. 15 Piano Concerto, and the Op. 51 String Quartets. Now, even though I became acquainted with these works through the Four Hand piano series, I later gave the original versions their proper hearings. However, I don't lie when I say I prefer the piano duo versions. These arrangements are not some lackluster and weak editor's arrangement, but rather Brahms's own. I consider Brahms's level of expertise and understanding of piano sonorities on par with Liszt's.

    What these arrangements prove, at least for me, is that Brahms's music, as indomitable as it is through a skilled conductor and orchestra, is inherently suited to the piano and vice versa. That is, the piano can capture the majesty of the first movement of the 4th Symphony, the chorale effects of the Triumphlied, and also the intimacy of the String Quintets. Keep in mind, I've now listened to the original German Requiem, the Symphonies and many chamber works. But I don't find them superior to the piano arrangements. And that is the power of Brahms's music and his arranging/transcribing prowess. His music transcends the medium; an ensemble of flute players could illuminate his Piano Quintet Op. 34 like nothing else. Not that I would prefer to hear this, but I make my point that unlike Mahler, Stravinsky or Wagner, Brahms's music is not a slave to the instruments and the orchestral tone colors. Mahler's symphonies on piano are a sorry state... I've heard piano duets of them and while the music is there, the effect is almost lost. Not so with Brahms, and I attribute the success to both his music and his skill at arranging. Therefore, I implore the reader to taste Vol. 9 or Vol. 17 of the Naxos four hand series. The Piano Concerto No. 1 for four hands (Vol. 9) and two pianos (Vol. 17) is bound to impart one of those rare and sensational aural experiences like hearing Beethoven's late piano sonatas or Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" string quartet.

    What a journey this has been. Brahms is number four on my top composer list, not a bad position considering I once ignorantly despised him. I'm not exactly intimately familiar with all of his music yet. I've listened to numerous other works like the Clarinet Quintet, the Cello and Violin Sonatas, the Double Concerto and his piano sonatas. But I think I'll always prefer his music in piano arrangements. Unlike the orchestral versions, the piano clarifies contrapuntal textures, sheds light on the harmonies, and still maintains all the orchestral effects. Schumann himself called Brahms's own piano sonatas, "veiled symphonies in sound." Brahms therefore seems to excel at writing symphonically on the keyboard. His arrangements certainly showcase this, and in my view, they illustrate that the power of his music is so natural, imbued, and awesome that a mere reduction to piano never harms it. On the contrary, the piano glorifies it. The music is noble and divine without the chorus, it is sensual and gorgeous without a chamber ensemble, and it is incredibly sonorous without the orchestra. For Brahms fans, I encourage exploration into this Naxos Four Hand series. Listening to such masterpieces on the piano is not an old fashioned 19th century limitation, but an enriching and enjoyable experience.

    My 10 Recommended Compositions in Four Hand Arrangements:

    1. Piano Concerto No. 1
    2. A German Requiem
    3. Symphony No. 1
    4. Symphony No. 2
    5. Symphony No. 3
    6. Symphony No. 4
    7. Piano Quintet Op. 34
    8. String Quartet No. 1
    9. Tragic Overture
    10. Piano Quartet No. 1


    An Amazon list of the Naxos series can be found here.

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    Thanks to Hexameron for informing us about his experience in relation to appreciating Brahms.

    To be frank, Brahms was not among my first set of favoured composers, or even my second set. I have to admit that my first encounters with his music were not that favourable as much of it struck me as staid and stuffy. In time, however, I realised how wrong that impression was, and how he is rightly regarded as one of the top 4 or 5 Romantic era composers. In terms of my personal preferences, he now follows Beethoven (first) and Schubert (second), along with Schumann in joint third place.

    Hexameron greatly favours four-hand piano transcriptions of many of Brahms works. I have not listened to any, as it never occurred to me to do so, but may be I now try some on his favourable recommendation. I have to admit, though, that while I greatly like piano works, I am also very keen on orchestral works as they clearly offer so much greater variety of sounds. The downside is that it is very easy to become fussy about choice of orchestra and conductor, with the urge to try alternative recordings that can get quite expensive.

    Several members here have only just started listening to classical music, and are highly impressed with a few works that have been well publicised of late. These works are just tip of the iceberg, and don’t be surprised to find you change your mind umpteen times about what’s best within the space of a few years. Possibly, like me in the beginning, Brahms may appear a bit staid to some right now, but don’t be in any doubt that he was truly one of the finest composers, and that if you like Romantic era music you can’t possibly not like Brahms.

    Hexameron’s favourites closely follow mine, so the two together hopefully should provide a reliable guide as to the best of Brahms. For a short list, the obvious first step would be to get a set of the four symphonies. I like the Otto Klemperer set, but a more recent one is by Haitink/London Symphony Orchestra which has had good reviews. I especially like those gorgeous second movements of each symphony. Second, a good buy would be the two piano concertos (at least Piano Con 1). Third, the Piano Quintet Op 34 is one of the finest chamber pieces for piano, and if partnered with the Clarinet Quintet Op 115 would make an excellent purchase. There is such a combination by Alfredo Perl (piano) and Ralph Manno (clarinet) that is particularly nice.



    Topaz

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    Senior Member Hexameron's Avatar
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    Since this thread will be retired after tomorrow, I thought I would make one final contribution; a large one. For those who feel like reading a Romanticized but quite engaging article about Brahms, I've decided to include this wonderful work by Josef Weiss, a contemporary of Brahms. He goes on for some length detailing and analyzing many of Brahms's great works. I decided to only include his opening and in a subsequent post, a specific section on Brahms's variations. Weiss goes on and on about the Op. 116-119, the violin and piano sonatas, the German Requiem etc. But it is entirely too long to include here, so I've decided that the next post will focus on the part pertaining to the variations, the most interesting analysis I believe.

    Johannes Brahms

    The Interpretation of His Music

    "Music should be described only when it is absolutely necessary. If the music is bad, then it does not pay. If it is good, then it does not need it. But Brahms, in spite of his great vogue among artists and connoisseurs, is not completely understood by the Anglo-Saxon race. My readers know that I am not afraid to interpret Brahms in tone; but I should have to write like Goethe or paint like Raphael to express the color of his music by words. How shall I express in writing what I find in Brahms’s music! I bring this offering to the interpretation of the master in the hope that my readers will give by judgment so much weight as to listen to Brahms with love and diligence, and approach him with respect and with the desire to read what he has written between the lines. For those who approach Brahms with arrogance and prejudice, or even with laziness, will always find the doors of Paradise shut.

    Everybody knows Brahms the composer. What musician is not aware that, opera excepted, he is the most many-sided composer in the world of music? Church music, piano, song, chamber music, orchestra—all these he produced rich in quality; and, in may styles, such as song (several hundred songs), very copiously. But in spite of this, no more modest man than he ever, in his lifetime, occupied such a place in the realm of tone. During the last years of his life the most important musicians and musical institutions vied with one another in showering on him honors such, alas, as the immortal Beethoven scarcely knew to the end of his days. Mozart was famous, but not the world over, and when he died half his works were almost unknown. Brahms, on the contrary, was fully recognized and appreciated by the men of his own generation; but he was a ripe character, and lived, as an artist should, in the energy of creative life. He was never anxious lest people should not perform his works, or should incompletely perform them, as, for example, was Beethoven. He let men be men. Therefore he himself was what he would be –great and reaching to heaven from within. Beethoven would always make us aware that he was a majesty, a Titan, and to what rank he belongs we all know; but Brahms was a majesty, a Jupiter, so absolutely through and through that he was unconscious of it. He never condescended to insist on his greatness, just as a giant does not find it necessary to say, “I am a giant.” Brahms was approachable, modest, responsible and businesslike in his dealings; and he was every moment of his life a pure character and a good man with a will of iron.

    That Brahms was wholly manly, that the joys and sorrows of the earthly existence has been richly tasted, he shows clearly by his compositions. He was the expression of a sound sensibility. He sprang from the people, and everywhere one meets the mighty lineaments and forms of his race in his compositions, which take root again among the people. In the houses of very plain folk the melodies of Brahms became true people’s songs. His polyphony is unquestionably more sure and significant than that of Beethoven and Mozart. His piano works are massive as those of the classicists, but far richer and bolder, and enriched with many new discoveries. His song accomplishments, his orchestration, and his form are entirely a means to an end. They bear, without exception, the stamp of their spiritual contents. Not a single note among the million which Brahms has written down exists for the purpose of effect alone. If Schumann, the nearest related to Brahms in spirit, has a thought, he brings it to light in a gayest-colored series; but in Brahms’s productions we almost always find each thought complete in the single form which he selects and paints before us. The collective thoughts which find place in the frame of his tone-poetry are unfolded clearly and logically in a series of tone poems such as no musician before him, without exception, has been able to create. That, like Bach, he writes fugues, and, like Beethoven, mighty sonatas and symphonies; that in richness of his quality his songs are the only ones which approach to Schubert’s; that, in one word, his technic and invention, although rooted in the classic, still offer the highest creative product, and that product always original, are facts which we have all known for thirty years.

    The great art of Brahms consists in its being a means to an end, and this end the highest. The artist should become a man of great ideals through this art. If Berlioz had applied his artistic skill purely to great things, he would have approached nearer to Bach than did either Beethoven or Brahms. But Berlioz, if, for example, he composes a symphonie fantastique, undeniably gives a glimpse behind the scenes into his artistic and spiritual life. But is such a personal expose true art? Interesting as the Symphonie Fantastique is to our generation of blasé modern men, it must be said that it carries the stamp of degeneration on its forehead. French art declined because it passed beyond the expression of character into that of personal anecdote. Its theme is its own passions. Beethoven was a dramatist of his own emotional life, but he did not write his personal biography into his works. Thus, Beethoven and Brahms stand nearer to Bach, the old father of music, and as long as the names of Brahms and Beethoven are spoken Bach will be reverenced as Wotan, the father of the gods. Each of his works, sublime in its freedom from restless personal delineation, is an oasis in the desert of earthly misery. “I would go on foot twenty German miles to hear something by Bach, but I would not willingly go as far to direct one of my own works,” Brahms once said to me. The genius of Brahms is akin to that of Socrates and Goethe. He was a philosopher and a God-ordained poet in tone. Operas he did not create; but drams, dramatic scenes, comedies, epics, and tales in music he poured forth in profusion.

    There is only one true and blameless conductor of Brahms—Herr Steinbach of Meiningen. All others brew water instead of beer. The public can penetrate into the great and serious works of this master mind only when everything is clearly played, every mark carefully noticed, and every point of the spiritual interpretation exactly brought out. Artists demand the impossible of the public. Can the public see what is invisible to the player himself? Of course it is much easier today to get out the hidden things in Chopin and Mendelssohn than those in Brahms. In the orchestra Bulow has brought out the style of Brahms in the clearest way; but Joachim goes deeper into its spiritual meaning. Joachim, however, Beethovenizes Brahms too much in his interpretation. Joachim, Rubinstein, and Bruch through all their lives have never emancipated themselves from Beethoven’s influence. Very pretty; but what remains of the great and original Brahms?

    Brahms requires from a soloist or from a singer a thousand nuances of tone color and of dynamics exactly as from an orchestra. Even the rubato, fully banished by Beethovenizers, Brahms demands, and pressingly. Dry, classical playing is of no use. His music requires life, naturalness, constant contrast. The dramatic scene shifts quickly with Brahms. Whoever dreams or only beats time is lost.

    I heard the Duo Symphony under Bulow’s and under Brahms’s direction. Each directed in turn. Certainly Bulow was more sure and more pointed; but Brahms’s presentation was more to my taste, and the public waver their handkerchiefs full of enthusiasm over it. The entire audience went with him to the station on his departure for Vienna, just as if he had been the Kaiser.

    I have said that what I did not like in Joachim’s interpretation of Brahms’s violin concerto was the rendering of it as if it were Beethoven’s. As, twenty-four years ago, my teacher Volkman and I were listening to the general rehearsal of an orchestral concert in Budapest and heard the joint production of Brahms and Joachim, we had both been prepared for great things; but neither of us beyond Brahms’s general features could remark anything of his spirit. Brahms, judging by his baton, was desperate. He was not satisfied. Joachim injured Brahms in such cases more than could be imagined. Yet his intentions were good and noble, and at that time Joachim and Bulow were the only virtuosi playing Brahms. Joachim was a great and strong tower for the living Brahms, but even he acknowledged the master’s full greatness only after his death. His speech at Meiningen testifies to this. He never said in Brahms’s lifetime that he was the “benefactor of mankind.” But for the most part Brahms had a very happy life. Were the works of Goethe appreciated outside of the Weimar circle? A hundred times no! And Goethe certainly belonged to the number of those to be envied.

    The social life of Brahms was great and important. Beethoven had a painful part to play in society, and he comprehended the meaning of his fate. But he was the first real musician known to the Viennese, and he had to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for his great successor. That a composer could be a true aristocrat, a great character—yes, even a hero—Europe before Beethoven’s day never imagined. He was the path-breaker. Schumann was the first to see that the social demands of musicians were necessary, and to insist on them purposefully. After him came Liszt. Schumann called Brahms a worthy fellow-fighter. It is significant that once, when some one praised Wagner too highly in Brahms’s presence, he responded that “Wagner honored the guild of musicians in his own persona because he allowed himself to be so much honored by the world.”

    Every one needs a Brahms for his life friend; but the modest, gentle Brahms himself had few associates with whom he could be in daily intercourse. Joachim, Billroth, and Hanslick were all. I am glad that I had an opportunity to talk with him. I spent four never to be forgotten days with him two years before he died, and then never saw him again. I marked this much while in his company—that among his few intimates he played the game of life nobly, and lost more than he won. Joachim treated him the best; it was he that many years ago created a Brahms cult. In spite of Brahms’s convictions and his character (for the frame-work of his character was hard as iron), he lived peaceably with his friends. In his character, as in his genius, Brahms is very closely related to the Scandinavian spirit, the type of Ibsen and the Northern school. The strength, the ruggedness, the manhood of the Northman are in him.

    Toward striving musicians Brahms was full of goodness, and had an open heart; but he had too little time for holiday pilgrims. He was not conceited enough to pose in the role of benefactor. Besides, as everybody knows, he had enough to do for himself and his family; and, too, Brahms lived on a high plane as to amassing money.

    Every gifted artist, productive or reproductive, should project his art creations to heaven from within; he should not deliver himself over to personal advertisement. Woe to the musician who makes it the end of his art to amass money! What for common men is either foolish or barbarous is fatal to him. The musician is not an anchorite to turn away from worldly things; but if he begins to catch at them, it is quick out with his art. Musical agents and advertisement there must be; I do not inveigh against these necessary folk who bring order into the affairs of those artists who are tainted by this illusion of wealth. But Brahms lived to compose, not to boom his reputation and enrich himself by his compositions. He preserved the simplicity of the true artist’s life to the end. In his art itself Brahms had but three spiritual predecessors—Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven."

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    Johannes Brahms

    The Interpretation of His Music (continued)



    Variations

    "At its first appearance the variation form indicated nothing more than a florid repetition of the theme—as Germans put it, “the same in green.” The new form of classic variation indicated by Haydn and established by Beethoven is just the opposite of the earlier musical structure. I would like to call the modern variation, at least that of Brahms, the “symphonic variation.”

    The more magical and mysterious is the connection of the variation with the theme, the higher is the artistic work and the less forced is the bringing out of the theme in the variation. How apparently unconstrained and unimpeded flow the voices of a fugue, and yet how completely they are bound together! Variations must likewise flow naturally, as if they were independent pieces. In art it counts even more than in life when you can divine the intention of the composer by sympathy. Only a real genius can take a thought and draw it forth, upon a single theme, in contrasts, as though it were a symphony. Fugues and variations are equally born of the symphonic germ, and stand in the same relationship to it as does rhymed poetry to the poetical prose.

    If one would get the best that Brahms’s variations contain, he must have gone a long way on the musical journey, and among men. But let us suppose that the reader is not yet convinced that with Brahms every note is a part of an original and noteworthy thought, but is willing to accept it, and that then he has the mischance to hear a piece of Brahms’s played by some one who is too lazy or too uninspired to see a thought, or to bring it to light when seen. Do you suppose, dear reader, that if you had been present you would have become intelligent? Why do I write that? Answer: If in the year 1900 one listens to the peculiar judgment passed on Bach and Brahms by the better classes, the explanation is plain. Under what circumstances do we hear the fugues and variations of the classics given? They are the first numbers on the concert program, placed there for the warming of the player’s fingers. At the best the public receives from them but the impression of a good musical finger exercise. It is easy to understand why even the improvising of a genius works more refreshingly upon the spirit than the best-played pieces of the so-called good pianist.

    The powerful individuality of genius will always be apparent in early youth, but its perfection comes only with the ripeness of maturity. For all that, it was the ripe genius of Beethoven which, in the last sonata (Op. 111), built up the C major variations so wonderfully, yet it must be conceded that Brahms began his musical career by giving quite a new character to the variation form in his first variations on the andante (Ops. 1, 2, and 5). The finale, andante molto, is magical in its aggrandizement of the first, poco piu lento; and in the andante (Op. 2) he actually excelled the all-experienced Beethoven.

    Brahms attained perfection in his variations on the Haydn theme, using the variation form as the means at hand, and displaying to the fullest a power over it fairly demoniac, as his genius plays upon his subject like fierce flashes of lightning.

    In the last orchestra symphony (Op. 98), using separate music parts, and also the orchestra group, he delineates the world and the compelling impulses of mankind. This is indeed a build made without hands, built of love, strength, holy passion and character, mountains, seas, sun and freedom. Like a true poetic spirit, he shows us all this in conflict, in the struggle of life and death. In doing this Brahms avails himself of the old dance form of the ciaconna.

    Though master as none before him of all imaginable virtuosity in the forms of music, yet these were to Brahms absolutely but a means to the expression of his artistic purpose. His collective variations are therefore totally different from each other in technic and in substance. Thus the variations on a theme by Schumann (Op. 9) are an impressive memorial of true friendship to Schumann himself. The theme, an album leaf by Schumann, sounds as if the dying composer had written his own epitaph. The variations portray Schumann and his restless strivings between love and suffering. In the ninth variation he actually lest Schumann himself speak, inasmuch as he permits but a single sigh from his own bosom to flow into the melody of the theme, which is otherwise a piano piece of Schumann. The end of the tenth variation, the third measure from the last, is a motif of Robert and Clara Schumann—the variations in C major. The eleventh variation is exactly as Schumann would have written it. The bass part of the fist, and the last four measures of the sixteenth variation are from a theme of Clara Schumann, to which her husband had himself written variations. The succeeding variation leads his loving friend into eternal peace. The final variation closes as a memorial of his friend.

    Schumann had described the youthful Brahms as a new, great, and powerful genius who knew his Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven perfectly, as did few others of his time. Even in these early variations Brahms is already master of spirit and material. They seem a sweet, mysterious swan song. Never could one artist describe another more tenderly or more sympathetically. The variations are full of love, and those who recognize the lofty spirit of Schumann and his fast increasing melancholia will appreciate the lover’s gift of the greater but modest and grateful Brahms.

    The “Original Theme and Variations” (Op. 21, No. 1) presents an epic breadth and a balsamic fervor, half churchly, half symphonic, which depicts Brahms as he then was. In these variations may be discovered a Brahms by turns epic, lyric, and in the ninth variation gigantic, all happily united into one clear symphonic whole.

    The variations on a Hungarian theme (Op. 21, No. 2) are pictures from the life of a Magyar. Brahms rehearses the sad songs, the blazing passionate pangs of love, the gaiety of wine, the czardas, marches, troops of dancing maidens, and wedding processions, till he finally opens a heaven of symphony above the whole company, and closes with the Hungarian theme in the form of a hymn.

    The spirit of Handel controls the variations which bear his name and carry us modern people back into his own time. The theme is as simple as that of Haydn (Op. 56), but instead of being delivered piously and fervently, it is almost always given roughly and loudly. The variations paint the ceremonious customs of Handel’s day—the church-going, the organ, the inside of St. Paul’s dome, the hunt, ghost stories, out-of-door sports, walks, bagpipes, fifes, peasants, true love (variation 20), religious tumult, and the triumph of faith in a powerful fugue which secured the youthful Brahms a place of honor on the classic Olympus by its sympathetic and fresh swing, its religious fervor, and iron counterpoint.

    The “Paganini Variations” Brahms himself called studies, and these twenty-eight variations are certainly a treasury of noble, diverse, and great technic in a solid legato style, springing out of a Beethoven-like piano style. Every variation is a work of art in thought and fervor far beyond the scope of the etude. From the whole speaks the renunciation of the consecrated artistic soul, now lyric, now heroic and tragic. Technic should be a secondary matter in playing these variations. It is a pity that so few artists perceive this. They care only to show their virtuosity, and ruin the art work. Graceful, sometimes depressed, sometimes enthusiastic, these variations must be felt through their initial idea—Paganini playing them on his violin. They are as if Paganini had chosen to play lyric themes—to indicate sentimental sonnets, voice bursts of enthusiasm—to run, in short, through a whole gamut of poetical fancies, violin and pianistic by turns, each of which Brahms reproduced on the piano.

    The variations on a theme by Haydn begin with a choral of St. Anthony, the peculiar instrumentation of which depicts for us the far-away time and far-away land. Yet how? That should be only a variation which we listen to. And what is this we hear? The figures of a dead time begin to move and have life—shapes ponderous, graceful, hurrying. All is so pleasant and lovely. The prayers, so fervent and true-hearted, flow through the melodies. Soon the churchly themes recall the church in its mood of worship. Then crowds of people stirring over field and city, while the feast-day music, half holy, half merry, blends wit the scene. Loving couples wander up and down. Night falls. Belated wanderers, respectable citizens, hasten to save themselves from unholy darkness in friendly, bright homes. Now begins the wonderful andante finale, the symphony constructed from the theme, in which Brahms is always so strong. What do we hear in all this movement? Imagine that shortly after the setting of the sun you are on a hill near a little city, in the time of Joseph Haydn. The heavens are deep blue, the air is full of early spring, and you see the city brilliant with lights, people in festal attire, gay masses of color, the churches lighted up. You hear the bells playing a part of the choral; you see them in their regular swing sending a message of peace and happiness; all you behold is full of gladness of heart, and while you gaze your own heart is uplifted, every vexation is forgotten, and in harmony with yourself you dream it all over in your sleep. Such are the variations that Brahms has written on Haydn’s theme. These variations have been excellently arranged for two and four hands.

    I take this opportunity to speak of Brahms’s instrumentation. He has done as much with it as with composition. People have been saying for fifteen years that his instrumentation is gray, and, moreover, too thick and too full. I scarcely need characterize the foolish emptiness of the charge. What Brahms has done he has done better than any one else, living or dead. Nor need I remind you that he was colossal in all he did. In fact, Brahms was such a master of music and her instruments that he used instrumental combinations before unknown, while he brought out unsuspected beauties in the instruments themselves. See what he accomplished for the clarinet, for the string quartet, for the wood wind, for the horn, for trumpets, the harp, the organ, and (in the “Requiem”) for the chorus of many voices with and without accompaniment! His instrumentation is like himself. What he chooses always gives the exact color and the thought which he desires for the working out of his idea. Then the piano! His sonatas and chamber music comprise pieces which are not only perfect for the piano, but which in composition are almost concertos in themselves. Technically Brahms’s piano pieces are not easy; but each note is of enduring value, and well worth the trouble of learning."

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    Really interesting article that Topaz wrote on Brahms.

    I like all the 4 Brahms Symphonies. His Violin Concerto is wonderful too. I don't care too much for his vocal music. (Don't really know why). The piano concertos are very expansive in design but I've never really been passionate about them.

    My favourite Brahms is the Variations on the St Anthony Choral and also the 3rd Symphony. One of the major composers of the 19th century. I like him a lot.

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    I must agree with you Mr. Newman on the 'Haydn Variations' (Saint Anthony); I remember I had a quite extensive knowledge of each variation before I was able to have understanding as to exactly how they drew from the original theme. The fact that Brahms found such an abundance of ideas, and orchestral beauties fixed in perfect correlation with a ending climax that ranks with any orchestral work written is beyond description.

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    I'm also a big fan of Brahms. After Beethoven, he and Mozart are my favorite composers.

    My 10 favorites of Brahms (in approximate order) are:

    1 - Violin Concerto (in my opinion, almost an equal to the great Beethoven Violin Concerto).
    2 - Symphony No. 1
    3 - Double Concerto
    4 - String Quartet No. 1
    5 - Clarinet Quintet
    6 - Piano Quintet Op. 34
    7 - Symphony No. 4
    8 - Variations on a theme by Haydn
    9 - Piano Concerto No. 2
    10 - Piano Concerto No. 1

    I've ordered his Piano Trios and Piano Quartets, so I can't wait to give those a listen!

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    ChamberNut: I'm sure you will love especially Piano Trio No 2, Op 87.

    Of the Piano Quartets, my favourite is No 1, Op 25.

    Are you familiar with Piano Sonata No 3, Op 5? This is truly very nice indeed, probably his first really good work written in 1853. String Sextet No 1, Op 18 is excellent. The Violin Sonatas 1, 2, 3 are a must. The Alto Rhapsody Op 53 is lovely, and so too is the German Requiem. You probably have most of these.

    When I was writing the article, I played the piano quintet and quartets over and over. I think of all Brahms' chamber works the Piano Quintet is the most outstanding work. It's one of my overall favourite pieces of music. When I first heard it I just couldn't believe how clever it was. Along with Schubert's C Major String Quintet (D 956), and Beethoven's SQ 14, these are my top 3 favourites. Add in Beethoven's SQ 13 and 15, Archduke Piano Trio and Cello Sonata 3, and Shubert's 3 Piano Trios, that's my TOP 10 chamber works. At least for this week.
    Last edited by Topaz; Feb-05-2007 at 20:42.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Topaz View Post
    ChamberNut: Are you familiar with Piano Sonata No 3, Op 5? This is truly very nice indeed, probably his first really good work written in 1853. String Sextet No 1, Op 18 is excellent. The Violin Sonatas 1, 2, 3 are a must. The Alto Rhapsody Op 53 is lovely, and so too is the German Requiem. You probably have most of these.
    Actually, other than the String Sextet No. 1 and 2, I don't have any of the above works you have listed. Slowly, but surely, I will have these someday in my collection.

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    ChamberNut: The thing about some of Brahms chamber works is that they don't always "hit" you straight away. They are very clever, deep, and pensive. They are mostly very enjoyable but you have to give some of them a number of runs. For me they represent the last word in terms of historical refinement of Romantic era chamber music, along with some Dvorak. In general I don't think Tchaikovsky's chamber works are a match, although some of it is very good. I do not care for chamber music after Brahms and Dvorak.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Topaz View Post
    ChamberNut: The thing about some of Brahms chamber works is that they don't always "hit" you straight away. They are very clever, deep, and pensive. They are mostly very enjoyable but you have to give some of them a number of runs.
    I totally have to agree with you there Topaz.

    Compared to Brahms orchestral works, which I fell instantly in love with, the chamber works were a bit different. At first, I didn't know what to think, because it sounded a little off, a little odd. After several listens though, Brahms chamber music has turned out to be highly enjoyable.

    The same goes for Beethoven and his string quartets. When I first heard string quartet music, I was less than impressed. From being used to orchestral and symphonic music, it is an adjustment to the more intimate chamber music. However, string quartet music, along with other chamber music, slowly grew on me to the point where I probably listen to chamber music as much and perhaps even more than orchestral music, including symphonies.

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    ChamberNut: In my view, without any doubt, the best composer to start with for chamber music is Schubert. Utterly delectable stuff.

    Forget Haydn and Mozart. Even Beethoven can be a bit heavy for starters. Schubert's the man. I don't know how far you are acquainted with Schubert but the most gorgeous chamber pieces are his Piano Trios and the C major String Quintet, D 956. Of these my favorite is Adagio in E Flat Major, "Notturno" D 897. It's very short but fantastic. I'm 99% sure you will love it. It's usually found with Piano Trio No 2, D 929, which is also fantastic.

    Take a peek at the Schubert article. Watch out though; you could easily become a Schubert nut, like me. Many of his lieder and song cycles, especially Winterreise, are drop dead gorgeous. He is so wonderfully melodic and gifted it's unbelievable.

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    Nice article, and also thank you for the recommendations, Topaz. I have not yet familiarised myself with the works of Brahms. (Except for a few Hungarian Dances .) I saw a CD with his double concerto and LvB's triple (EMI) at a local store. May be I should start with that.
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