MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2024
60,000 reviews
... and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Sonata #1 in C, Op 1: opening passages; finale
Piano Sonata #3 in f: first movement; Scherzo
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24: fugue
Five Studies for Piano: #3, Presto in G, after Bach
Idil Beret, piano
Souvenir de Russie; Waltz in E, Op 39#2

Silke-Thora Matthies, Christian Köhn, piano 4 hands
Hungarian Dance #1

Marat Bisengaliev, violin; John Lenehan, piano
Piano Trio #2 in C, Op 87: scherzo
Vienna Piano Trio
Serenade #1 in D, Op 11: excerpt
BRT PO, Alexander Rahbari
Piano Concerto #1 in d, Op 11: opening; finale
Jenö Jandó, piano; Polish NRSO, Antoni Wit
String Sextet in Bb Op 18: Andante, excerpt
Stuttgart Soloists
Motet: "Wenn ein starker Gewappneter," Op 109 #2
Motet: "Ich aber bin elend", Op 110 #1

St. Bride’s Choir, Robert Jones; Matthew Morley, organ
Trio for Piano Violin, & Horn, Op 40: finale
Jenö Keveházi, Jenö Jandó, Ildikó Hegyi
A German Requiem: "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras"
Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Slovak RSO, Alexander Rahbari
Piano Conceerto #2 in Bb, Op 83: andante; finale
Jenö Jandó, piano; BRT PO, Alexander Rahbari
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op 56a: excerpt
Symphony #1 in c, Op 68: finale extended excerpt
Symphony #2 in D, Op 73: third movement
Academic Festival Overture: excerpt
BRT PO, Alexander Rahbari
Violin Concerto in D, Op 77: slow movement
Takako Nishizaki, Slovak PO, Stephen Guntzenhauser
Concerto for Violin & Cello in a, Op 102: slow movement
Ilya Kaler, violin; Maria Kliegel, cello; NSO Ireland, Andrew Constantine.
English text written and read by Jeremy Siepmann, with
Jasper Britton as Johannes Brahms; and Karen Archer, Elaine Claxton, Ruth Sillers, Neville Jason, Nicholas Boulton, Steve Hodson, and David Timson, reading, in character, excerpts from letters, etc.
136 page [English only] booklet.
ISBN 1-84379-057-2 [DDD]
NAXOS 8.558071-74
[4 CDs: 298.32]


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Apart from Siepmann’s commentary, the texts read by the actors are for the most part taken from letters, apparently ignoring that people can lie to each other in letters. Of the choices available—e.g., having all these Germans speak in German accented English, or a universal Hollywood English—the decision has been to use British actors speaking in their professional London stage or BBC accent, which aims this production to a British audience, but makes it accessible to any English speaker. The language has been carefully universalised; only once did I have to consult my British slang dictionary. Most to be praised is the presentation of mostly complete musical movements (except when a very brief excerpt is used to make a point of comparison) or at least complete segments of movements. In other words, no fadeouts and no voice-overs which to my mind generally ruin presentations of this type. After hearing the narration through, one could program the CD player and have a set of over an hour of pure Brahms to listen to, in first rate performances and sound, naturally all from the Naxos catalogue. Not having the full CDs to compare, it seems to me that the orchestral musical selections are reduced in volume and have added reverberation to remove them to a distance so as to balance the perspective with the immediacy of the speaker’s voice. But, other than to say that the selections chosen amply fulfil the function required of them in the narrative, I won’t comment further on the merits of these recordings since they are all available on Naxos commercial CDs which are presumably reviewed in detail elsewhere.

The life of Brahms, as presented, is the conventional biography which stresses his life long attraction to women who were one way or another inaccessible to him, and begins by lamenting the horror of the very gentle and pretty boy Brahms playing the piano in brothels and seaside shanties. This tale, based on Brahms’ late life claims, has, according to the Charles Rosen writing in the New York Review of Books in 1998, been disproved by Kurt Hoffmann in Johannes Brahms und Hamburg (Reinbeck, 1986), but I have been unable to obtain access to the materials to corroborate this or expand upon it. Nevertheless, a more adult biography of Brahms may soon be written which paints a better informed, more complicated picture. Indeed Siepmann goes on so much about what a pretty boy the young Brahms was that he makes inevitable the speculation that the boy Brahms, if he did indeed work in rough neighbourhoods, was the object of homosexual rape, perhaps frequently so. Of course a real boy is a tough guy and never complains or tattles about this, and in Victorian Vienna such things might be taken for granted but never discussed. Brahms told the story of his unpleasant youth as an excuse for his adult irascibility and vulgar rudeness, but this could have been a pose. One is reminded of Beethoven publicly deliberately exaggerating his personal foibles to project an image of eccentric harmlessness and thus defer suspicion of political and religious nonconformity which could have led to his imprisonment. Brahms also had before him the example of his friend and mentor Schumann, a man who was imprisoned for and seemingly died of madness, to remind him of the need to keep his internal personal struggle to himself so far as possible.

In attempting to depict Brahms’ sarcastic and abusive public remarks only a few of the most absurdly gentle ones are given, leaving the sceptical listener to wonder what the fuss was actually about. Consult an unexpurgated biography for the real dirt.

Having recently re-read Alan Walker’s 3-volume "Franz Liszt" it was interesting to be here reminded of the "other side" of the "Music of the Future" dispute. The verbal brutality of the attacks on the immature Brahms by critics does certainly explain and perhaps partially excuse the violence of the anti-Wagner/Liszt retaliation by Hanslick and other pro-Brahms partisans. It is to Brahms’ credit that he remained an objective observer throughout, never failing to express admiration of Wagner’s or Liszt’s music where he felt it was deserved, allowing the partisan battle to be fought by others, being generous in victory as he was stoic in defeat. Interesting that Catholic Vienna chose as its musical champion the agnostic Brahms against the devout Catholic abbé Liszt!

Critics of the time are quoted as comparing the Big Tune in the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony to the theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but it is demonstrated that there is in fact little similarity. But did the critics actually not notice the very real similarity to the Big Tune in the last movement of Mendelssohn’s "Scottish" Symphony? Perhaps this work was not well known in Germany at the time, but Brahms was obviously familiar with it. There is also an uncanny resemblance between the opening of a trio sonata by Loeillet and the andante ma moderato of the Sextet Op 18 which further illustrates the point made in the narrative and the booklet that even in his early works Brahms was uncommonly well read and aware of other music, especially earlier music, far ahead of the music critics of his time. And, as many examples could show, like Handel he had no embarrassment in making use of a good musical idea wherever he found it.

When I was a child I appreciated nothing so much as being treated like a grownup, so I would not hesitate to recommend this set to any modestly precocious child of 8 or 9, although Siepmann rightly comments that children generally do not like Brahms. He came to like Brahms at 14, and with me it started around 20. And, beyond the utterly silly opening few minutes, there is nothing here that would offend a knowledgeable adult. It would also be an excellent choice for public libraries. The assignment of an ISBN number indicates it will be offered for sale by bookstores as well as music shops. The 136 page English-only booklet includes a two page "graded listening plan," reviews of many old and new books about Brahms, a glossary, thumbnail biographies of 34 important personalities in Brahms’ life, an extensive essay on historical background, a lengthy year-by-year chronicle in parallel columns of important events, and only 4 pages of advertising for other Naxos products at the very end.

The spoken text is not printed in the booklet but is available on the Naxos website— However the diction of the actors is so clear that even the most casual listener will not miss a single word. Thus, this set would also be an excellent gift to a musically interested student of English wishing to perfect his accent. Apart from the photograph of the elderly Brahms on the cover, a drawing of the young Brahms on the flyleaf, and a photo of the mature Brahms on page 63, the only illustrations in the booklet are small photos of the actors—in black-and-white; there is no use of colour except for a small banner on the front cover.

Paul Shoemaker

Return to Index

Error processing SSI file