In college I toyed with a project idea: to collect recordings of all Brahms’ works, the entire opus. Now over 45 years later and thanks to new technologies, that project is complete (but for one song – nothing is ever really complete). The opus resides on my iTouch, consuming about 10GB in ALC format.
A difficult part of the task was considering multiple performances of a work and selecting the one I liked best. In some cases, I have yet to find a rendition that I consider entirely satisfactory. But mostly I am happy with the result. I reviewed as many as 15 performances of a piece to come up with a favorite. I was often tempted to create Frankenstein pieces, with different movements by different interpreters. But in the end, only complete performances qualified. The exceptions are the collections of small piano pieces and lieder, where I switch performers at will for the various pieces within a given opus. There is no credible evidence that Brahms desired for all the pieces collected within an opus number to be performed as a group in sequential order. So I treat them as individual pieces.
To discover why I like some performances more than others is as difficult as determining why I like Brahms in the first place. One thing I noticed, the first performance of a piece that we hear imprints on our brain an expectation of how the music should sound. The more consistent we are in returning to that same performance time and again, the stronger the imprint. When other performances deviate from that first impression, the initial response may be aaarghhh. But by hanging in there and giving other performances a chance to grow on us, we develop a higher plane of appreciation.
No interpreter gets it ‘right’ all the time. For example, I am fond of one performer’s piano interpretations, particularly the slow Intermezzi of the solo piano works. But sometimes, he seems to give in to ego and to show off his technique rather than clarifying the music and conveying its full expressiveness. Orchestral conductors fail as well in certain places, where they attempt to cast a work in a new light by marked tempo alterations, usually going to very slow in an attempt to find new meanings. Having listened to various interpretations over decades, I have developed my own sensibilities regarding the flow of phrasings, voicing of the chords, balances of instruments, and so forth. In the end, pleasing my unique ear is the only criteria for making it onto my iTouch. It’s personal.
As to why Brahms, his music strikes me as truly introspective, a window to his soul, more so than any other composer. To me this makes the music real. It was real to Brahms also; he referred to his music as his blood. Brahms spent his entire life behind masks when relating to other adults, carefully hiding himself away in one curmudgeon act or another. Clara Schumann, a true love and best friend, remarked later in life that she had known Brahms (as ‘du’) for 25 years and yet he was still a stranger to her. With children he was open and generous and consistent. With adults, he was erratic and elusive and contradictory; only through his music could one really know him. And that is how he wanted to be known. It was his true identity.
Possibly, it aids appreciation of music when composer and listener have similar psyches; e.g.the Master’s introspection will strike the most resonant chords in the listener who is also inward-directed. Although a lot of the music’s expressiveness is universal, it seems likely that some is most truly heard by a like soul. Much of Brahms’ music is inspired by a bitter-sweet yearning, reflected by the frequent moll-dur tensions that create the unique Brahms sound some of us hear so pointedly.
In the music that I (we?) most revere, expressiveness is heightened by musical craft. We can be entertained perfectly well by simple tunes, but the greater the craft, the more our ear is challenged and the more involved we become in the experience. In the depth of his musical craft, Brahms stands unsurpassed, in my estimation. This stature can be attributed to where he stands, on the shoulders of over three centuries of great masters whom he studied extensively. His craft thus represents the convergence of an astounding musical genius and a life dedicated to musical scholarship directed toward the great geniuses of yore.
As Brahms understood his role as artist, to him it fell the burden of creating a personal synthesis of all that went before, thus to honor the great masters. He expected that he was the end of the line, and wanted the lineage to be well served by his art. His unique attention to craft explains why his music has been considered craft-centric, and was described in his time as ‘absolute music’. Yet that is nonsense, for the craft is always in service of the expressiveness of the art, and there is nothing absolute about the soul of a man.
One wonders what Brahms would have thought about the possibility of capturing outstanding performances of all his published works. From what I have learned of him, he would have considered a collection of his manuscripts as a worthy objective in musicology, as a way to appreciate his art and to learn from it. Perhaps by extension, in today’s world he might also have considered a collection of performances as a worthy objective. On the other hand, he would be saddened to observe that we would not learn much from the experience. For Brahms would not feel at home in a world such as ours, where the general public becomes less musically knowledgeable each passing year. A century and a half ago, the public did not have musical recordings. They enjoyed music in their homes by playing music. It was a very active participation in the art. Listening is a lazy pastime, and we have largely lost the ability to understand what we are hearing.
Brahms recognized an unevenness of the quality of his works. He was quite ruthless with himself in assessing quality. He discarded over 20 string quartets, parts of two symphonies, a couple of concertos, and unknown quantities of other works. He wrote music for himself, and would scrap efforts he considered inferior. Yet he also desired and needed public affirmation of his art, and when the public sometimes did not respond supportively, he would terminate other similar works in progress.
Just as he was critical of his own efforts, he could also be critical of others, even efforts by the masters. For example, when compiling the supplementary (posthumous) edition of Schumann’s works, he (and Clara) evidently considered some less worthy than others, partially a consideration of his mental deterioration in his final years. In the same manner, Brahms would not expect even a musically educated and sophisticated person to appreciate all of his own works. And for the less informed public, he wrote and arranged accessible pieces such as waltzes and folk music. He did not expect enthusiasm from the mass public for much beyond these easier pieces.
I fall in the middle somewhere. For example, Brahms wrote nearly 300 published songs for one to four voices with piano accompaniment, but perhaps only 10% currently give me much enjoyment. Probably for most, the true enjoyment is in the performing and not in the listening.
The sound quality from my iTouch is commensurate with the quality of this music. I do not use Apple’s earbuds – they do not fit me. I have a pair of quality, portable on-the-ear headphones (thanks Ben and Zhanna). The musicality of this small device is remarkable (my 1G version uses a Wolfson DAC, subsequently abandoned on later generations of the iOS devices from Apple).