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Thread: Johannes Brahms - The symphonies

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    Senior Member Daniel's Avatar
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    Default Johannes Brahms - The symphonies

    The shadow of Beethoven followed Brahms quite a long time, but finally he could finish his 1st symphony. It is obvious, that he often needed many years to get to an end with first works of an instrumental group: In the piano sonatas, other chambermusic like the piano quintet, piano concertos, symphonies...

    In total he wrote 4 symphonies: c-minor, D-major, F-major and e-minor. Every one with a special touch and gestus: the 1st one very extrovert with great impetus, the 2nd one more introvert and intimate, "pastoral", the 3rd one full of emotions, melodical richness and sudden changes of feelings, a very strong work, and then the sighing, melodical reduced 4th, which covers old with new: Old forms like the Passacaglia in the 4th movement in the context of romantical harmonic and so on...

    Do you see a significant musical development from symphony to symphony?

    What are your favourite perfomances and recordings?

    Greetings,
    Daniel

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    Senior Member Frasier's Avatar
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    Agreed, Brahms wrote some pleasant music - he was perfectly competent - but he was no innovator. Excuse me saying this but where Beethoven really pushed the symphony and sonata forward by miles, Brahms stuck to Beethoven's old formula. So yes, Brahms was a genius at the well-trodden route but he didn't have Beethoven's creativity.

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    Arguably, the greatest set of symphonies written post-Beethoven.

    I absolutely love Brahms' orchestration. It is a shame he did not write (or rather publish) more orchestral works. They are pretty much all masterpieces, in my opinion.

    I think his 4 symphonies stand up to anyone other composers' best 4 symphonies, perhaps Beethoven the lone exception.

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    Senior Member Kurkikohtaus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Daniel View Post
    In total he wrote 4 symphonies ... Every one with a special touch and gestus ... Do you see a significant musical development from symphony to symphony?
    While I respect your subjective reactions and feelings to each of his symphonies, I think the similarities betwee them far outweigh these differences you list. Analytically speaking, they are all written in the same style, with attention to motivic counterpunctal accompaniment of themes, broad structures governed by a strict harmonic plan with a focus on the Neapolitan of the Dominant (flat VI), and the alternation of massive Tutti textures and fragile Chamber textures. These are Brahms' hallmarks, and the Symphonies represent his mastery of them at the height of his powers.

    So I am not criticizing Brahms in saying that his symphonies do not show development from one to the other, I am saying that they are the ultimate representation of a finished master.

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    i enjoy -

    hvk/bpo #1
    kertesz also does a good first.

    dj

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    Senior Member Daniel's Avatar
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    Hello Kurkikohtaus!

    Quote Originally Posted by Kurkikohtaus View Post
    Analytically speaking, they are all written in the same style, with attention to motivic counterpunctal accompaniment of themes, broad structures governed by a strict harmonic plan with a focus on the Neapolitan of the Dominant (flat VI), and the alternation of massive Tutti textures and fragile Chamber textures. These are Brahms' hallmarks, and the Symphonies represent his mastery of them at the height of his powers.
    Agreed.

    But maybe we can see a subtile development in the main-direction of every symphony. Let me explain:

    1st symphony, typical way "per aspera ad astra", same tonality as Beethoven 5th, c-minor. 4th movement works with material from the 9th, and has an ending in extraordinery C-major (same way as the 5th). The way from minor to major

    2nd symphony: It is a symphony in major. Interesting: The first movement somehow searches for minor, which is actually reached in the f-sharp-minor-theme in the exposition. The movement ends with a not unknown, but significant ending I--> minor IV - I. D-major points to g-minor... One could say, this major symphony has a tendence to minor...

    3rd symphony now goes another way: Changing much between major and minor. Formal interesting with 3 themes, F-major, C-major and A-major. After the two opening bars we can follow an expanded cadence with neapolitans and dominants with steps in minor and major. In the coda of the 4th movement we can hear the merged major/minor, almost "blue-note": an almost simultanous playing minor/major-event in lightest colours, even a bit impressionisic. So maybe this symphony searches for a combination between major and minor.

    The 4th symphony is somehow different, the ways of major-minor are not a main topic any longer, this symphony is a result of the three. More backwards in the idiom than the others in my eyes, but charming.

    But yes, you are right, counterpunctual and in harmonies Brahms does not open new dimensions like Liszt or Wagner in single works.
    What do you think about Bruckner in this matter? He has his predeterminated harmonical language since his 1st symphony, he only increases harmonies like in the 9th, which sound not understandable in the functions, but they are well-grounded in the system of Sechter and even Riemann.

    Daniel

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    Notserp89m
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    I am no expert on classical music and cannot contribute much to this intelligent conversation but i will say a little.

    Agreed- he was not much of an innovator, he openly expressed that he did not like the new style German of other composers such as Wagner. But he still mastered a form of music pioneered by Beethoven, and who is to say that to be great you have to innovate.

    Agreed- he wrote 4 very good symphonies which is put together with the up most precision and attention to detail and are delightful works.

    And finally that which i know is going to make many cringe, I think it lacks true passion. The only movement of his 4 symphonies that actually "capture me" is the 3rd movement of his 3rd Symphony. I wouldn’t have all four of his symphonies in my car right now if it were not for that movement. I keep listening through the rest listening for maybe something i overlooked with that kind of beauty but i can't seem to find it. I am not taking away to his genius but it almost at times seems as if the symphonies were overwritten at times. Now this is just an opinion which i already know is not shared by many.

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    I would, as many recommend the First and Fourth. The chorale in the last mv't of the first never gets old! Personally, it's a very nostalgic theme. Also, the finale to the Fourth is great. I honestly cant understand how anyone could sense any lack of passion in those two movements. But, yet, we all listen from different angles and experiences, so it can vary.

    As for recordings, the ones I have are Walter/Columbia SO for the First and Bernstein/Vienna for the Fourth. Although, for Brahms, you can never go wrong with either of these conductors for any work.

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    Senior Member opus67's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Notserp89m View Post
    The only movement of his 4 symphonies that actually "capture me" is the 3rd movement of his 3rd Symphony.
    Ditto.
    Regards,
    Navneeth

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    Quote Originally Posted by Daniel View Post
    What do you think about Bruckner in this matter? He has his predeterminated harmonical language since his 1st symphony...
    Bruckner certainly knew his harmony... but there is a problem with the harmonic depth into which he dwelves vis-a-vis the architecture that he creates across the breadth of a movement.

    His approach to modulation is clearly that of an excellent organist and improvisor... but because we already have "every key" in the exposition, the development then does not create a wholly contrasting plane harmonically. Although in the development, his themes become fragmented and superimposed on each other (as one would expect), it doesn't have a different harmonic sound world than the long, long, long exposition that we just heard... the return then to the recapitulation and home-key isn't always as satisfying as in Beethoven and Brahms, and the restatement of all the themes in the recapitulation often leaves one wondering if we have indeed "come home".

    This is where Brahms (after Beethoven) excells... his harmonic language creates the architecture and gives us a feel for where we are in the movement.

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    This may sound daft, but I like to think of his symphonies as the four seasons, the first being spring and the last being winter. The idea came to me when I realised how autumnal the 3rd sounds. True it is a very powerful work, but the 3rd movement in particular suggests tiredness and the slow recession of nature. What do you think?
    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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    Karajan's recording of the first is amazing.
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Brahms was a complete perfectionist and destroyed many of his works because he thought they were inadequate. He did follow the example of Beethoven in some ways but he wove complex melodies with inverted passages and as many as six continuous themes in one passage-2nd movement 2nd Symphony. He opens the 2nd with four notes as did Beethoven in the 5th and Mahler also opens his 5th with a four note passage- the funeral march by the trumpet. There is an evolution in successive composers and they were definitely influenced by their predecessors.

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    I have more recordings of Brahms cycles/symphonies than I can count. Favorite cycle is Abbado. Favorite individual recording would be Kleiber's 4th.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin Acker View Post
    I have more recordings of Brahms cycles/symphonies than I can count. Favorite cycle is Abbado. Favorite individual recording would be Kleiber's 4th.
    Agreed, agreed.

    Kleiber's Fourth (with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG) is a favorite, but let's look closely at each symphony, as far as recordings go.

    No. 1: Klemperer's 1st is quite good. Toscanini does well too. I don't know as much about this symphony as I would like, so other recommendations are Karajan and Abbado.

    No. 2: For sheer beauty, Karajan is gorgeous. I have both Bruno Walter recordings on LP (New York and Columbia), and they are both very special and feature terrific finales. Abbado has recorded the piece twice and both and well played and recorded. Klemperer is still regarded as revelatory in some circles, and is also outstanding.

    No. 3: Karajan again gets the Berliners to play with tremendous beauty, while Walter and Toscanini remain prime recomendations here as well. Alsop's 3rd is supposed to be the best of that Naxos cycle, and once again, I like Abbado here.

    No. 4: Karajan isn't as prime a contender here, so that leves the others. Of them, Kleiber's may be the most famous, and Klemperer the most contrversial. Haitnink on Phillips is beautiful, but Abbado brings more insight to the music.

    Haydn Variations: Bonus! I love these, and I hope no one will mind two more cents from me. Karl Bohm's with the Vienna Philharmonic never fail to impress me, and Claudio Abbado's simply sound terrific. Adrian Boult of all people is a sleeper on EMI.

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