The Allusionist

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Johannes Brahms is an elusive figure. He is the quintessential 19th-century romantic composer, yet in his day he represented a reactionary return to classicism. He wrote massive orchestral works and oversize chamber pieces, yet for a period after his death was thought of as light and unserious (all those Hungarian dances). He epitomizes the bohemian ideal of an artist who sacrificed his personal life for his art, and yet he was a consummate bourgeois, eager to appeal to a predominantly middle-class audience.

Certainly I, for one, have always had trouble pinning him down. And I have always had trouble liking his music.

Not that I find listening to Brahms actually odious. I have been known to muster warm feelings for the Sextet in G or the C Minor Quartet; and I am partial to the later solo piano music. But in general, Brahms is not a composer who makes my heart leap when he walks into the room. Rather, I greet his appearance as you would the entrance of a person at a party whom you're not all that eager to talk to, even though you may have had intense and intermittently rewarding conversations over the years. As a musician friend of mine said of Brahms's music, "It just goes on . . . and on . . . and on."

For I am not alone in having reservations. Strong opinions, of course, are part of the musical territory -- I know people who abhor Verdi or have no use for Bruckner -- but it seems to me that Brahms has a particular cadre of detractors. Every few years, a Brahms disliker outs himself in public, from critics to the professional harpist and blogger Helen Radice (Twang Twang Twang at who a couple of years ago confessed that she found "something neurotic in his endless development and variation." Benjamin Britten himself is supposed to have said that he played some Brahms each year to verify how bad it was.

And George Bernard Shaw, who during Brahms's lifetime was active as a music critic, called the composer "a great baby, gifted enough to play with harmonies that would baffle most grown-up men, but still a baby, never more happy than when he has a crooning song to play with . . . and rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise."

But Brahms is too important a composer for a critic merely to shield herself behind her own, and other people's, opinions. And so, seeing a weekend heavy in Brahms works on the Washington concert calendar -- particularly the Emerson Quartet playing two of his string quartets and a recital of three sonatas by the Kennedy Center Chamber Players -- I decided it was time to attack my block at its root and figure out what was causing it.

My antipathy for Brahms was never a matter of strong conviction: rather, a gradual observation that his music was not "taking" in the same way as the works of Beethoven, Bruckner or Mahler. Where as a teenager I delved repeatedly into the Beethoven symphonies, finding new treasures and obsessions on each hearing, the Brahms set remained curiously opaque, as impervious to my repeated essays as the monolith in the movie "2001," so that I kept forgetting, each time I approached it, that the music was actually familiar.

Looking back, I think this naive perception was reacting against the same thing that Brahms lovers invoke when they say you can listen to his music over and over and never get tired of it. Brahms certainly offers more ideas per square inch than many other composers, deconstructing fragmentary themes or rhythmic patterns with sophistication and nuance. As soon as Brahms puts an idea on the table, he begins playing with it in a process that Arnold Schoenberg dubbed "developing variation," merging two classical forms in a long process of aural working-out. It is no accident that some of his best and most popular works are variations: the Op. 24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, for piano, or the beloved Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a, which Mahler called "an enchanted stream."

But there is not always a lot of room, in these intense perforations, for air to get in. I have tended to respond to the compulsive part of Brahms, the composer who took 14 years to complete his first symphony, and wrote 20 string quartets before allowing one to see performance. To me, I think, it has communicated some of the aura of the cult of classical music: an intense self-satisfaction, an overworked, even overstuffed quality that reflects both the composer and the period in which it was written. And I am certainly not alone in finding the best Brahms performances to be those that let in some light -- like the piano concertos with Leon Fleisher and George Szell, a staple of the repertory.

It had not struck me, until I read Jan Swafford's excellent Brahms biography, that this overwork was part of an act of deliberate concealment (even variations, after all, are a process of concealment as well as transformation). As Brahms chewed over his pieces, he was also deliberately creating a facade to present to the world -- and trying to conceal traces of his own human fallibility. As a result, I think I have had trouble finding him over the years. Even his own instrument, the piano, is seldom allowed to stand alone in his works; it is often veiled by other instruments, however essential its role.

The weekend offered an interesting juxtaposition of concerts after a long period of Brahms cogitation. The Emerson four are rock stars, the Rolling Stones of the classical world, a quartet that stands for expressive performance with a modern twist, and who retain cult status despite a sense that they have lost some of their edge in recent years. They chose to mark their 30th anniversary, last May, by releasing an all-Brahms CD with the complete quartets (and a fine reading of the piano quintet with Fleisher), and they played the first two quartets at the National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium on Saturday sounding considerably more on top of their game than I had heard them for some time.

Brahms is an interesting choice for the Emerson, which does not revel in plush romantic sound; what they do, very well, is expressive anxiety, and on Saturday they raised four voices in a taut democratic Babel. Their issues appear to be with the violins, where there were a few intonation questions in both pieces. One of their great strengths is the cellist David Finckel, who becomes the group's effective leader, gaining in authority by being the only seated person on the stage, and in interest because he is so much fun to watch as his face reflects every emotion, every phrase. When, in the second movement of the second quartet, the cello brought back the main theme after a number of false promises, he looked so genuinely pleased one wanted to crow aloud. If you want to see a good musician having fun, this is how it looks.

On Sunday, the Kennedy Center Chamber Players -- here, the three principal strings of the National Symphony Orchestra, plus the pianist Lambert Orkis -- offered three of Brahms's seven sonatas for piano and solo instruments: the first one for violin (Nurit Bar-Josef), one of the late sonatas for clarinet, which Brahms also transcribed for viola (Daniel Foster), and the second for cello (David Hardy). Most striking, through the veil raised by the competent string players, was the playing of Orkis: firm, warm and flowing.

This is not the story of an epiphany. Brahms may always resist my efforts to pin him down. But I did emerge with increased sympathy for that earnest stranger at the party -- and for the tenacity with which he pursued his gut musical instincts, scorning pretentious theory, but devouring the past and finding his own ways of processing it into music of his own. In the rondo-variations of the final movement of the viola sonata, I had a sudden feeling of satisfaction at hearing this ostensible conservative welding forms of the past into something unmistakably right: music of the future. "Brahms the Progressive," Schoenberg called him.

And perhaps, in peering through the chinks in his facade, and through what used to appear to me as rather treacly sentiment, I was better able to appreciate his capacity for beauty.

In the second movement of the Cello Concerto, after Hardy and Orkis had traded plucked tones like tears of gut and found their way again from the minor to the lyrical sweep of F major, I was suddenly aware of an involuntary quickening of the pulse. There is a story of Noel Coward being asked, during a student's ungainly recital, whether he liked piano, and responding, "No -- but I like this." Similarly, I may cling to my allegation that I don't much like Brahms. But this, I thought, I like.

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