Spring Symphonies 37/60 - Brahms: Symphony No 2

I always imagined I'd be able to get away without writing about Brahms in this series, I give his symphonies airtime less and less nowadays.  They are constantly under scrutiny now in my mind though for a long time I thought them the bee's knees but a doubt came in to mind whenever I started to ask whether they are truly symphonic.  The drama is always there in the outer movements but aside from a few conductors who drop the speeds to their limits - where are the great slow movements in Brahms symphonies?  His need to propel music has some great aspects but I wonder at the balance of his creations.  Overall the course of four movements they generally want for passion.

So the sunny Second - composed when the master was on holiday - carries with it a genial and beaming disposition which some might prefer to see in a ballet or opera and not in the dramatic world of the symphony.  Here too I think conductors do miss a trick in of pulling out the dark side (more of that later).  But the circumstances of Brahms' music cannot be separated much from the circumstances of his love life or more pointedly his unrequited love life and in involvement with Clara Schumann.  The recap here is partial for a reason: Brahms the pianistic lion and composer from Hamberg, enters the Schumann household with a bang in 1853 and captivates the Robert and Clara.  He is lauded and cast as the future of German music.  He was -depsite Duran Duran's claim to the contrary - the first new Romantic.  Brahms watches from near and far as Schumann declines first through mental health crises and then death through tertiary syphillis.  And as he does so Brahms falls in love with Clara.  Robert dies in an asylum in 1856 and Brahms expects I think that his love will be requited by Clara after a period of mourning.  But that was not to be and it is with this backdrop that we find the symphonies at their most banal and most intriguing.

The First symphony has always seemed to be the work on an angry young man - probably lovelorn.  The Second is portrayed as genial but the deeper undercurrents of a darker hue are still obvious - in the agitated passage about 4 mins into the first movement.  Behind all that upbeat and at times somewhat cloying sweetness there's an edge.  Its hard to ignore when you hear it and it's magnified in other works such as the piano concerti (the piano being Clara's instrument).  Only in his writing for violin - the concerto and the sonatas - do I think the edge is less prevalent and there the sweetness becomes ethereal or almost cloying.  The development of the first movement of the the second symphony can be played out two ways - an exercise of strict Bachian counterpoint or as something a bit more gritty and personal - the older generation of conductors seemed to understand this latter better and blazed here.  It is important for me because without the execution of an emotional element to these symphonies they become as dry as Dvorak's most facile note spinning.

There is a huge emotional swell to the lead into the recapitulation of Brahms opening material - it can sound rather oddly stilted if the music isn't full-bloodied I think.  The tendency has been to normalise Brahms into a Mittel European blandness.  My feeling is that does him no favours and makes these symphonies even more banal.  The truth in Brahms is I think linked to women and passion and a man who spent his late puberty in brothels playing the piano and who knows what else.  Passion and fearless exploration of the dark side of this music is what I think is necessary.  The false cadence which leads to a telling heartfelt horn solo and the eventual quelling of the uneasy spirit that started the movement so carefree.

The Adagio non troppo is led by a huge cello theme, repeated and elaborated and cajoled by a couple of other themes and it starts so mightily but then drifts into a a sad repose.  Brahms didn't really know how to plumb the depths in the same way that he could scale the heights.  The music recedes into some sort of simplistic mode in which I struggle to find merit.  Karajan takes the minor key "variation" deeper with reinforced accentuation and an orchestra which can sound as though it's fifty fathoms deep.  But many struggle to find much passion here - and that's hardly surprising.  This is not really adagio - this is moderato music played slowly.  The Allegretto Grazioso is pastoral enough and perhaps befitting of a holiday symphony - but neither of these middle movements lives up to the promise and scale of the outer movements.  There is a music that there is no emotional element here and Brahms was simply composing music of great beauty.  But I fear I don't but that - the gulf between the drama of the first movement and the euphoria of the last needs more I think.

There can be an interesting though experiment (enabled by digital gadgets) of an break less transition between the third movement and the fourth.  It helps me no end to slide into this bundle of music which Brahms wraps up with a ribbon.  There's great joy in this music but it needs some intensity to come off.  I'd venture that energy of this sort has a high excitement rating because it is essentially sensual.  Brahms presses so many musical button there is and uses his colossal powers of orchestration to pull together something of much more complexity and variety than we've heard so far in the composer's orchestral output.  In 1877 Brahms - on holiday - wasn't brooding over a symphony but dashing off one of his most energetic movements.  Where is Clara in all this? I don't know.  But there is a tremendous winding up of the tension and with 4 minutes to go this symphony starts to build. Quietly at first and then with vigour, the deep retardando (slowing) brings out a brutish power quelled (something conductors today seem reluctant to do).  Over that the accented and diverse slinging around of euphoric material continues - it is truly joyous.  But the edge must always be there.  When the brass start to take over they must pull on their leashes. With the high strings descending, high brass must be relentless in pushing the music  further over timpani providing thrust and power.  When the brass breech the summit and the sunlight pours in we may wonder what has happened to the studied Brahms of the middle movements.  My answer - even listening again five time to this faultless piece (in a compositional sense) - is that we don't get the true Brahms in the middle of the beast - and so it is something of an emotional chimera.  He doesn't choose to properly explore his deepest sadness - is he a true Romantic?  I'll leave you to decide.

Ordinarily I'd post a YouTube clip to illustrate my points but here's audio only first movement done by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the first movement which should be enough to illustrate my point.  I couldn't find a video performance that didn't make me want to scream....



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