Two great Brahms works and two great performers: Marek Janowski and Janine Jansen.
“It feels as though I’ve been given a beating by two very intelligent people” exclaimed the critic Eduard Hanslick after hearing Johannes Brahms’ fourth symphony for the first time in 1885. Since then, listeners have been fascinated by the impressive complexity and immense power in this masterpiece for 130 years. Janine Jansen also brings power and complexity to Brahms’ legendary Violin Concerto, all this under the direction of master conductor Marek Janowski.
Johannes Brahms’ (1833−1897) Violin Concerto is a full-blooded Romantic solo concerto, featuring rich melodies and technical bravura, but in this work, the soloist is obliged to share the main role with the orchestra. The soloist is not a superior and elevated individual in this concerto, but more a single voice in the greater symphonic drama, especially in the weighty first movement. The oboe even steals the opening theme away from the soloist in the second movement. Some violin virtuosos have been provoked by this, and Pablo de Sarasate is known to have refused to play the work as he resented standing on stage while the oboe played “the only melody in the adagio!” Still, there are sufficient technical challenges for the soloist. Many describe the double stops, the triple stops, the furious arpeggios and the great leaps as almost pianistic − Brahms was a man of the keyboard, after all. There is no doubt that this concerto is only for the very best on their instrument.
One of the great performers in history was the legendary violinist, Joseph Joachim (1831−1907). He was a good friend of Brahms and played a decisive role in the composition of the piece. Letters reveal that Joachim “corrected” both the solo part and the orchestral parts several times, and when the concerto was ready to be premiered in 1879, it was dedicated to him. He performed the world premiere, and had the honour of composing the solo cadenza. In the work’s third and most famous movement, some claim to discern a Hungarian colour in the musical fireworks, which was hardly a coincidence — Joachim was of Hungarian origin.
In a time of raging aesthetic debates about as to what extent the music could, should and ought to express something outside itself, Brahms was the crowing example of that music was simply, itself; in Hanslick’s words, “tonal forms in movement”. Brahms’ strategy of form built on Beethoven’s, and involved using small motives as the starting point for advanced development over long time, often in cyclical structures. The most important form in Brahms body of work was the symphony. He started composing them late, but his four symphonies now stand as some of the definitive highlights in the symphonic repertoire. The jewel in the crown is arguably his fourth symphony.
After the principal theme has tentatively made an appearance in the opening bars of the symphony, the rest of the movement is anything but reticent. The music reflects a tragic, almost fatalistic mood, and its complexity of counterpoint and rhythm would have been enough to alarm any 19th century listener. However, these features are celebrated today as the composer’s most distinguishing characteristics. When Brahms presented the work to Hanslick and some other friends, they questioned whether this might be too overwhelming for the audience, and whether it should be performed at all. Fortunately, Brahms succeeded in overcoming both his own doubt and that of his friends, and had the work premiered in Meiningen in 1885, to an overwhelmingly positive response from those present.
After the dramatic, spectacular symphonic process in the first movement, Brahms reveals other aspects of himself in the two middle movements. The second movement is tender, simple and loving, and demonstrates some of the composer’s most subtle and varied orchestra writing, such as when the two clarinets are accompanied by the quiet pizzicato of the strings after the horn’s opening solo. On the other hand, the explosive third movement is the only real scherzo in all Brahms’ four symphonies. Nevertheless, the symphony’s highlight is the mighty, dark passacaglia in the final movement where the Bach-like theme creates a framework for some of Brahms’ most impressive and dramatic symphonic structures. The work retains its serious mood, and when it ends in a dark minor chord, there is no doubt that this is one of the most serious, weighty and significant contributions to the magnificent symphonic repertoire of the 19th century.
Following the somewhat careful, albeit positive reception in 1885, Brahms’ fourth symphony stands among history’s greatest musical masterpieces, and has become an audience favourite in concert halls around the world.
The music of Johannes Brahms has always had an important place in the Oslo Philharmonic’s repertoire, and both Symphony No. 4 and the Violin Concerto were natural parts of the programme already in the orchestra’s first season in 1919/1920. At the time, José Eibenschütz conducted and Richard Burgin was the soloist in the Violin Concerto, while Georg Schneevoigt conducted the symphony. And while the times have changed and the orchestra has seen many conductors, these timeless works have been frequently performed in every decade of the orchestra’s hundred year long history.
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Janine Jansen; Photo: Harald Hoffman)Read more
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