Open season on Brahms? Not quite..

April 20, 2009 at 2:55 am (Magazines and newspapers, Music)


Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms


First, there was “The Allusionist,” in which Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette states that she has always had trouble liking the music of  Johannes Brahms; further, she assures us that she is not alone in her aversion: “…Brahms has a particular cadre of detractors.”

Then, in a review of a recent performance of the German Requiem at the Kennedy Center, Phillip Kennicott delivers the following warning:

“Brahms done without absolute conviction is deadlier than most composers, and last night one was reminded of the tired old joke by George Bernard Shaw — that Brahms’s Requiem can be borne patiently only by the corpse. One hates to repeat it. One can’t help it.

Okay, Kennicott didn’t like this particular performance (by Kurt Masur and the National Symphony Orchestra). But yes, one could have helped it!

And so I was gratified to see that, in his poignant valedictory for Washington’s Master Chorale in today’s Washington Post, columnist Marc Fisher got it exactly right, just as the Chorale apparently did, in a performance I am sorry to have missed:

“From the chorister seats in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, these singers — by day, lobbyists and lawyers, teachers and shop clerks — poured their all into Brahms’s “German Requiem,” a huge work that soars from mourning to joy and settles into a soul-drenching peace.


Brahms’s German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) is one of the great works in the choral repertoire, achingly beautiful and at the same time ennobling, edifying, and inspiring.  I recommend two performances in particular:


Needless to say, if you have the opportunity to attend a live performance – take it!

Here is Daniele Gatti conducting a performance that took place in Bologna in 2003.  This is the second movement:

When it came to writing symphonies, Brahms was apprehensive and uncertain. He felt himself dwelling in the enormous shadow cast by Beethoven. But he overcame his doubts and ultimately wrote four symphonies, each one a masterpiece.


The young Brahms, in 1853

The young Brahms, in 1853


We were thrilled to find a video of Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Brahms’s First Symphony. The venue was Tokyo; the year, 1959. Like Brahms, von Karajan has had his detractors, but we are not among them. In this video, he is seen at his most charismatic. At times his gestures are fluid and graceful, almost balletic; then they becomes urgent and forceful. He seems to be conducting not just with his hands but  with his entire body, and to be in an almost trance-like state, totally at one with the music.

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