Brahms Roots and Memories

This ambitious project, which took place as a series of tours during the years 2007 and 2008, involved 28 performances across Europe of five different Brahms-based programmes. The aim was to shed light on Brahms’ superb but lesser known choral music, and through them to gain a new understanding  of his symphonic work. Each programme set Brahms’ works against pieces by other composers who may have inspired them.

“To me Brahms’ large-scale music is brimful of vigour, drama and a driving passion. ‘Fuego y cristal’ was how Jose Luis Borges once described it. How best to release all that fire and crystal, then? One way is to set his symphonies in the context of his own superb and often neglected choral music, and that of the old masters he particularly cherished (Schütz and Bach especially) and of recent heroes of his (Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann). This way we are able to gain a new perspective on his symphonic compositions, drawing attention to the intrinsic vocality at the heart of his writing for orchestra. Composing such substantial choral works as the Schicksalslied, the Alto Rhapsody, Nänie and the German Requiem gave Brahms invaluable experience of orchestral writing years before he brought his first symphony to fruition: they were the vessels for some of his most profound thoughts, revealing at times an almost desperate urge to communicate things of import. Solemnity, pathos, terror and jubilation are all experienced and encapsulated before they come to a head in the finale of Op.68.

To prepare for this project of performing five of his major and most popular works – the German Requiem and the four symphonies – within this context, we have needed to hunt out and experiment with the instruments favoured by Brahms (the natural horns, for example, which he favoured), to reconfigure the size and layout of his orchestral forces and to search for all available hints at recovering forgotten playing styles. Brahms veered between despair and joy at the way his symphonies were interpreted by conductors of his day – ‘truly awful’ (Hans Richter), ‘always calculated for effect’ (Hans von Bülow), but ‘spirited and elegant’ (Fritz Steinbach). He disliked ‘metronomic rigidity and lack of inflection on the one hand, and fussy over-determined expressivity on the other’ (Walter Frisch). A rich fund of annotations to the symphonies was dictated by Steinbach to his former pupil, Walter Blume. These reveal the kind of elasticity of tempo and the flexible, nuanced yet disciplined readings favoured by Brahms. Alexander Berrsche, a famous Munich critic, called Steinbach’s interpretations ‘classical’, by which he probably meant authoritative and authentic. To us twenty-first century musicians approaching Brahms, Steinbach’s articulations and phrasings seem classical in a more historical sense – the kind we associate with composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – before these features were subsumed in the growing emphasis on uninflected and continuous legato (or what Wagner called ‘endless melos’).

Brahms’s orchestral music works at so many levels at once. It is a huge challenge to the interpreter to make sure that his multi-layered way with an orchestra (the many allusions and ambiguities he introduces) does not smudge or cloud the tension between the highly crafted surface of his music and the subtle ebb and flow of the feelings buried just beneath. The idea that we can somehow reconstruct the ‘real’ and ‘original’ Brahms is, of course, a chimera. When all is said and done, our main interest is in what Brahms can sound like in our day: what his music has to say to us now.”

John Eliot Gardiner
©2009