Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The right amount of curtain in the frame

Brahms: Complete works for solo piano

Brahms lived at the keyboard; from his early virtuoso days until just before he died his music for solo piano was always front and centre, and six CDs of this music will provide a three dimensional picture of what makes Brahms tick. I caught only a couple of Barry Douglas's six individual releases from Chandos over the past five years, so my immersion in this music during the last week has given me a pretty fresh idea of Douglas's point of view as he guides us through more than seven hours of music. I really like his idea of mixing things up and presenting six separate stand-alone mixed recitals made up of different periods, contrasting formats and pieces in keys that make musical sense. Each disc is a delight, though I must admit I powered through more than a few discs at a time when I got some serious Brahms momentum going.

I've been reading Annie Leibovitz at Work, where the great photographer says "I love [Richard] Avedon's stripped-down portraits, but I'm very uncomfortable coming in close like that. Avedon trusted the face to take the picture. He didn't claim that his portraits were 'true', but they looked like reality." Barry Douglas abjures any close-in focus on the emotional core of any piece; he tends to have a more nuanced, a 'truer', in Leibovitz's sense, point of view. Leibovitz continues: "I usually pull back from the subjects of a portrait and include things around them in the picture. That's one of the reasons I love Diane Arbus. I used to study her pictures and try to figure out how she got just the right amount of curtain in a frame. Just a little piece of it, but just the right amount for the room she was working in." Listen to how Douglas includes just the right amount of curtain in this lovely version of Brahms' Intermezzo, op. 118 no. 2:

This isn't a cool approach, exactly (though maybe it's cool in Marshall McLuhan's sense), but it does eschew some of the effects I've heard from other pianists. To me it seems measured and classical, but in the end I'm just as moved by this performance as I am by those of Arthur Rubinstein or Glenn Gould. Composers more than writers or, especially, visual artists, tend to expose their emotional lives in their art, and so we often seem to know a composer more fully, even without letters or diaries or the testimony of contemporaries. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, "In music the passions enjoy themselves." The case of Johannes Brahms is instructive; we can hear in his early music a vigorous young man, well aware of his gifts but still holding back some of his strongest feelings and impulses. His own works are then charged with some romantic tumult as he encounters the music of Chopin and Liszt and Robert and Clara Schumann, while at the same time his more serene nature deepens as he studies Mozart, Bach and Handel. Finally, in the works of his final years, we hear call-backs to a lifetime of music, tinged with the dark colours of regret for lost love and missed opportunities, and nostalgia for former happy times. Ultimately his classical nature reasserts itself in more austere constructions which are never quite placid. All of these ebbs and flows are chronicled in this masterful survey by a pianist at the height of his powers.

Every once in a while I come across a musical project that I realize will become something important in my life; recent ones include Haydn 2032 from Giovanni Antonini, and the Peterhouse Partbooks by Blue Heron. Barry Douglas's Brahms will, I'm sure, be another.

The box set of the Complete Music for Solo Piano will be released on January 5, 2018, though each individual disc is for sale right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment