The last of the “three B’s,” Johannes Brahms needs little introduction. His works for piano, chamber groups, and orchestra are constantly programmed every season. You would think there is little left to discover, but the recent all Brahms program by the National Philharmonic at Strathmore included some lesser performed works.
And that is Brahms’ choral music. While hardly obscure, Brahms’ works for voice are less frequently mounted these days, except for his large scale German Requiem. Perhaps the problem is getting a decent size vocal group together for a twenty minute piece. But then, Brahms’ signature work is a song – his famous “Lullaby” – but when was the last time you heard that piece sung, as opposed to an instrumental version of the work?
Music Director Piotr Gajewski scheduled two of Brahms’ best short vocal works for the first half of the concert, and then a purely orchestral piece after intermission. This is not a common arrangement for an all Brahms concert but it turned out to be one of the most interesting National Philharmonic concerts I have heard all season.
For some, Brahms still has the reputation for being too cerebral and dense, but just listen to the opening of the Song of Destiny (“Schicksalslied) which opened this program. The instrumental prelude is as direct and lovely as anything Brahms wrote, and conductor Gajewski handled this opening nicely, preparing the way as the voices enter and then building the piece to its central climax.
A tricky second half goes into more turbulent minor key terrain, but the instrumental ending quietly recalls the serenity of the opening. Conductor Gajewski handled these tricky transitions very well, and the National Philharmonic Chorale sang well throughout.
This was followed by the somewhat better known Alto Rhapsody, based on a poem by Goethe, who seemed to inspire every other piece in the nineteenth century. Brahms loved the middle voice range, and his instrumental and orchestral works often featured the cello, clarinet, French horn, and oboe. That Brahms would write a showpiece for the alto voice should come as no surprise at all.
In a way, the work is the opposite of the Song of Destiny – very tense and austere at first, it gradually becomes more melodic and more upbeat as it progresses.
Opera star Denyce Graves did a lovely job with this piece, especially those fragmentary vocal lines that start the work – her voice firm and resonant in the lower range but able to reach those higher notes that Brahms includes. She was ably supported by the men of the National Philharmonic Chorale, along with the Walt Whitman High School Men’s Chorus. It is another work full of transitions, and conductor Gajewski kept this work tightly focused.
After intermission the Philharmonic performed the most autumnal of all Brahms’ orchestral pieces, his Fourth and final Symphony. This work is so frequently performed now that it is hard to think that the initial reception was mixed. Even some of Brahms’ supporters had issues with it – his friend and important critic of the day Edward Hanslick said after hearing the first movement that it felt like he was “being beaten up by two very intelligent men.”
Well, by one intelligent man. That first movement is one of the most fluid of Brahms’ sonata forms, often nebulous and mysterious in both melody and direction. However, that third movement scherzo is the most robust, even jovial, orchestral movements the composer ever wrote – with the triangle player having a great time throughout.
But Brahms is looking backwards a lot during this piece. The lovely slow movement wants to slide off into the old Phrygian church mode while the massive finale uses the old Baroque form of the chaconne – a set of variations on a set chord pattern. Brahms is looking forward too, as modal harmonies and the use of Baroque forms would dominate a lot of twentieth century compositions.
Again, conductor Gajewski and the Philharmonic were in their element. The first two movements came off as both lovely and mysterious, while the scherzo was direct and even rambunctious in spots. Those final variations can be tricky to pull off, but the conductor kept the work tightly under control. Perhaps the Philharmonic offered no striking new insights into this familiar piece, but they provided a very enjoyable walk through familiar ground after the lesser unexplored territory in the first half.
The National Philharmonic is nearing the end of its current season, but there is an all Wagner concert on June 1, and returns the following weekend for Orff’s popular Carmina Burana (June 8 and 9)
The National Philharmonic has also announced their 2013-2014 season, which will include an all-Beethoven concert with the Fifth Symphony, an all Richard Strauss concert, and a concert opera to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.