Day 330: St. Anthony Variations, 16 Waltzes, Variations on a Theme by Schumann

BrahmsCD24I’m not as enamored with today’s piano music as I was yesterday’s, although it’s pretty.

It’s not just as intriguing or magical.

This might make good background music.

But it’s not compelling enough to be good active-listening music.

Not for me, anyway. You’re mileage may vary.

Here are the three two-piano compositions:

Variations on a theme by Haydn (“St. Anthony Chorale” Op. 56b for two pianos)

There’s a good article about this composition posted on The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra web site, part of which says:

The theme at the heart of Brahms’s piece is likely not the work of Joseph Haydn, despite the work’s title. It came to Brahms by way of an unpublished divertimento score, discovered in 1870 by the Viennese music librarian Carl Ferdinand Pohl while he was preparing a Haydn biography. Knowing Brahms’s fascination with early music, Pohl showed the composer the manuscript. Brahms was particularly struck by the movement headed “St. Anthony Chorale,” scored for eight wind instruments. Brahms copied out the chorale and returned to it in the summer of 1873 as the basis for the set of variations, fleshed out in parallel versions for two pianos (completed first, but given the secondary Opus number of 56b) and for orchestra.

If that’s true, Brahms was 40 when he composed these pieces of music.

16 Waltzes Op. 39 for piano four hands

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39 is a set of 16 short waltzes for piano four hands written by Johannes Brahms. They were composed in 1865, and published two years later, dedicated to Eduard Hanslick. These waltzes were also arranged for piano solo by the composer, in two different versions – difficult and simplified. The three versions were published at the same time, and sold well, contrary to the composer’s expectations. In the solo versions, some of the keys were altered from the original duet version (the last four in the difficult version and No. 6 in the easy version). Waltz Number 15 in A major (or A-flat major) has acquired a life of its own. An arrangement of five of the waltzes (Nos. 1, 2, 11, 14, and 15) for two pianos, four hands was published after the composer’s death.

Brahms was 32 when he composed these waltzes.

Variations on a theme by Schumann Op. 23 for piano four hands

According to the web site IMSLP, these variations were composed in 1861. If that’s true, Brahms was 28.

Here are the four hands playing today’s music:

Bracha Eden piano
Alexander Tamier piano

Day 322: String Quartets 1 & 2

BrahmsCD16I expect big things from today’s CD.

String quartets are usually where a composer can shine.

Some of my favorite music is a string quartet.

So my ears are wide open this morning, watching the thunderstorm roll through, sipping a hot cup of coffee. Ear buds in.

I have all the time I need to listen to Brahms.

Which is what I am doing.

However, so far, I’m not impressed.

Here’s what’s on Brahms CD 16:

String Quartet No. 1 in C minor Op. 51 No. 1

String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 51 No. 2

From their entry on Wikipedia:

Johannes Brahms’s String Quartets Nos. 1 in C minor and 2 in A minor were completed in Tutzing, Bavaria, during the summer of 1873, and published together that autumn as Opus 51. They are dedicated to his friend Theodor Billroth.

Brahms was slow in writing his first two string quartets. We know from a letter from Joseph Joachim that a C-minor quartet was in progress in 1865, but it may not have been the same work that would become Opus 51 No. 1 in 1873. Four years before publication, however, in 1869, we know for certain that the two quartets were complete enough to be played through. But the composer remained unsatisfied. Years passed. New practice runs then occurred in Munich, probably in June 1873, and Brahms ventured south of the city to the small lakeside town of Tutzing for a summer respite. There, with the Würmsee (as Lake Starnberg was then called) and the Bavarian Prealps as backdrop, he put the finishing touches on the two quartets.

He was 40 years old at the time of publication. Brahms regarded the string quartet as a particularly important genre. He reportedly destroyed some twenty string quartets before allowing the two Op. 51 quartets to be published.[1] At least one of the quartets (No. 1 in C minor) had been complete as early as 1865 but Brahms continued to revise it for nearly a decade.

Performers are:

Tokyo Quartet
Peter Oundjian, Kikuei Ideka violins
Kazuhide Isomura viola
Sadao Harada cello

The music is played with deftness, precision, and confidence.

But it’s just not moving me.

What I’m not necessarily hearing in this music is the sound of ice cubes tinkling against the sides of glasses, indulgent laughter from men and women trying to impress one another, and a murmur of a crowd oohing and ahhing over art they have no hope of understanding, explaining, or even liking.

In other words, one of the things a string quartet reminds me of is the music played during a wine-and-cheese soiree at an art gallery.

This doesn’t sound like that. It’s not Baroque-y enough or something.

It just sounds like great musicians playing average music, lots of music written in the same tempo – with the one possible exception being Movement IV (“Allegro non assai”) from String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 51 No. 2. I thought I heard a little life in that composition. But I wasn’t sure.

Am I too hard on Brahms?

Maybe Brahms following Beethoven wasn’t such a good idea.

Maybe if I scheduled Brahms after Haydn this would sound like something Olympian gods handed down to mere mortals.


Day 310: Overtures, Variations, and Serenades (Oh, My!)

BrahmsCD4I liked this CD from the get-go.

The music is interesting, varied, and bold.

These overtures and variations seem to be better composed than Brahms’ symphonies. At least, to my ears, they’re infinitely more compelling.

The musicians on today’s CD are:


London Symphony Orchestra
Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor

Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester
Gunter Herbig, conductor

Dresdner Philharmonie
Heniz Bongartz, conductor

The compositions on today’s CD are broken down into four main sections, covering some 17 tracks:

1. Academic Festival Overture Op. 80
2. Tragic Overture Op. 81
3. Variations on a theme by Haydn Op. 56 “St. Anthony Variations”
4. Serenade No. 2 in A Op. 16

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

Academic Festival Overture (German: Akademische Festouvertüre), Op. 80, by Johannes Brahms, was one of a pair of contrasting concert overtures — the other being the Tragic Overture, Op. 81, written to balance it as its pair. Brahms composed the Academic Festival Overture during the summer of 1880 as a musical “thank you” to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate the previous year.

Initially, Brahms had contented himself with sending a simple handwritten note of acknowledgment to the University, since he loathed the public fanfare of celebrity. However, the conductor Bernard Scholz, who had nominated him for the degree, convinced him that protocol required him to make a grander gesture of gratitude. The University expected nothing less than a musical offering from the composer. “Compose a fine symphony for us!” he wrote to Brahms. “But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!”

Brahms, who was known to be a curmudgeonly joker, filled his quota by creating a “very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la Suppé” in an intricately designed structure made to appear loose and episodic, thus drawing on the “academic” for both his sources and their treatment.

The work sparkles with some of the finest virtues of Brahms’s orchestral technique…

According to Continue reading