Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Opus 38: Cello Sonata no. 1, in E minor
composed: 1862-5 (age 29-32)
first performance: Leipzig, January 14, 1871 (Emil Hegar, cello; Carl Reinecke, piano)
dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher
The classical music canon thing got off to a superb start with the number 324, which you know as Brahms: Sonata No. 1 in E Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 38 (1862-5).
I’m not sure what I’m looking to get out of this exercise – cultural literacy, I guess, whatever that is – but part of me is just rooting for each piece to be good, for its sake, for my sake, and for the canon’s sake. No question this piece is good. A fine way to push off on this journey.
The piece as a whole has a nice dark cello-y quality, and also a simplicity and openness that suits the instrument more naturally, I think, than the higher-strung passionate stuff that often gets written for it. The cello as a very graceful bear, rather than as a very heavy bird.
There are three themes in the opening movement and they are all excellent. The first in particular is beautiful and well-balanced and very satisfying. Brahms’ melodies never swoop or feint, they’re very forthright about the way they navigate the harmonies – everything lines up very precisely – and yet he manages to create all kinds of gentle subtleties. If you look closely at any bar or two of the score, there is nothing but clean, hard craftsmanship. But somewhere beyond that, something more tender and mysterious is going on. The secret seems simply to be taste and care; truly fine craftsmanship is more than the sum of its parts. This is exquisitely demonstrated in the coda of the first movement, where, within a very simple texture, the music calmly leans back slightly, and suddenly something incredibly poignant seems to be happening. Something sad and important that explains and answers everything that’s gone before. That music can do things like this at all is always remarkable, but what impresses me here is that it’s being done with no fancy shading – all clean corners and everything out in the open.
This is what impresses me about Beethoven, too: the suggestion of curves and shadows using only straight lines and primary colors. The excerpt above reminds me a little of this – the music progresses geometrically but the emotions experience some kind of non-Euclidean bend; the straight line that feels like a tensed bow. In Beethoven this sort of thing is even more pronounced because his straight lines are really, really straight. When he fails to create that transcendent effect, he writes incredibly inane stuff.* Brahms is much more versatile, and could do the fancy stuff too, when he wanted, but he usually doesn’t need to. His line is just pliant enough; no more, no less.
The second movement is the least ambitious of the three, which is customary. The fairy-tale delicacy is more compelling in the B section than the A: my only real dissatisfaction with the entire piece is with the first melody in the second movement, which doesn’t convince, especially when placed in such an exposed relationship to its accompaniment. In particular, there’s an awkwardly resolved and very un-folksy tritone in it, which could easily have been avoided. But the B section is a graceful, amusing combination of mystery and smarm.
The third movement stands slightly apart from the other two – the “age 29-32” above means that when Brahms was 29, he composed the first two movements (along with a slow movement later discarded and now presumed lost) and then three years later added this finale, which is rather more intricate and forceful than what precedes it. Appropriate for a last movement; but – and maybe this is only because I’ve been tipped off to the compositional history – to me it feels a little like a departure rather than just a finale. It’s a busy contrapuntal treatment of a triplet-y theme:
For what it’s worth, say all the liner notes, compare this theme from Bach’s Art of the Fugue:
Bach’s theme, however, starts with a pickup quarter note on the fifth of the scale, which clearly identifies the downbeat. In Brahms’ version, it is very hard to hear (or to play so that one hears) the downbeat on the first note, since the heavy falling octave places such a strong emphasis on the second note, and then the falling fifth in the second bar reinforces it. Even now, having come to know this piece very well indeed, I still tend to hear most recordings as
which is rather less satisfying a theme, especially as the movement progresses, because its harmonic shifts, no longer aligning with the barlines, are hardly as propulsive. But Brahms is in a sense working against himself here, so the duty of making this “read” properly therefore falls on the player. Most recordings I heard, however, did not fight the fight well enough.
Which brings me to the other component of this project – the actual recordings of the pieces. David Dubal, whose list the project follows, provides several recommendations for each piece. In this case his list (which is the list for both this sonata and the Cello Sonata No. 2, Op. 99) reads:
As you’ll see in the links, those first two are out of print, luckily replaced by newer issues of the same recordings. Seeing as the book dates from 2001 when this was probably already the case, one could say that this is a count against Dubal. But whatever. More on this issue as regards later pieces.
For this piece, the immediate resources of two public libraries and the internet provided me with many options, including all three of Dubal’s suggestions; see below. The very first one I listened to was the Ma/Ax RCA recording, which is extremely warm and beautiful in terms of sound and surface; Yo-Yo Ma’s cello is probably the prettiest of anyone’s I heard. But there were a number of passages – particularly in the last movement – that I still didn’t really understand after listening to this recording repeatedly, and the performance consistently gave me some wandering attention problems. A little too much of a warm bed.
The Du Pré/Barenboim performance has much more drama in it – the score is far more “performed,” not just rendered in attractive sound – but sometimes to the point of obscurity. What was she getting so worked up about, exactly? It wasn’t always clear. Only one of the confusing passages was resolved for me.
The Rostropovich/Serkin recording didn’t add much to either the surface or the sense of the piece. Surprisingly uninvolving.
And then there are all the others… so let me generalize very broadly: Big name musicians, especially in the last quarter-century, tend to play with a reserve – or is it an over-confidence – that neglects to come down on one side or the other of the “big choices” that pieces present. I suspect that in the case of, say, Ma and Ax, there is considered thought behind the performance – it just ends up canceling itself out: “Great music is so rich – let’s exercise our maturity and sophistication by embracing all its ambiguity and not rob the listener of any listening possibilities by force-feeding them anything – let’s just make the music sing for itself.” Akin to declaiming Shakespeare in a rich sonorous voice without actually acting, because actually seeming uncertain, say, would be a disservice to the grand poetry of uncertainty.
To me this is, no matter how well-intentioned, a big mistake, and is also a convenient mask for artistic shortcomings. Is it really a gift of trust to the listener to allow him to make the interpretative choices? Or is it just wimpy?
I’ve been to a bunch of high-profile classical concerts in the last several years, and it seems like common to nearly all of them was the tendency toward the least possible “acting” – just the facts, ma’am, along with a requisite smattering of mannerisms meant to suggest thought and emotion, and, let’s not forget, greatness. A bit like this:
TO BE OR NOT TO BE, THAT IS THE QUESTION, WHETHER TIS NOBLER, IN THE MIND, TO SUFFER, THE SLINGS AND ARROWS OF OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE? OR, TO TAKE ARMS, AGAINST A SEA OF TROUBLES AND BY OPPOSING, END THEM? TO DIE TO SLEEP, NO MORE, AND BY A SLEEP, TO SAY, WE END THE HEARTACHE AND THE THOUSAND NATURAL SHOCKS THAT FLESH IS HEIR TO, TIS A CONSUMMATION, DEVOUTLY, TO BE WISHED…!
And then the cultural elite jump up and braVO, braVO!
Okay, so that would be a particularly bad one. Most of them, actually, are more like
To be or not to be, that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them to die to sleep no more and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
And to one degree or another, these recordings (and the recordings of pieces to come later in this project) generally give me some of that effect. But, and this is interesting, the older ones don’t; it’s a recent phenomenon. The Du Pré/Barenboim one that I said had more “acting” in it was from 1968. And the recording that ultimately I liked best, that stood out head and shoulders above the rest in terms of telling a story, playing the role, was the 1964 Starker/Sebok performance, the earliest one I was able to get my hands on. Definitely my recommended first choice of these. Starker may not have the polish of Yo-Yo Ma, but hearing from the piece itself, as it were, more than makes up for it.
But there are still some things that I didn’t understand until seeing the score (PDF here), because nobody, not even Starker and Sebok, really “explained” them. Namely, the passages in the third movement where the counter-melody figure (see the left hand at bars 5-6, above) metamorphoses into the second theme (i.e. bars 53-64, look in the score). Pretty much every pianist seems to get distracted by the doodles in the right hand even though the left hand is obviously in the lead, and then they completely restart the argument in midstream when the texture changes at 61. And then, am I crazy, or isn’t the left hand at 65-68 the first three notes of the theme? Nobody brought that out. If anyone knows of recordings where the performers really make this part of the piece work, I’d love to hear them.
In the (random) order they appear above, with dates of recording.
Anner Bylsma / Lambert Orkis. Sony Classical SK 68249. 1995.
Janos Starker / Gyorgy Sebok. Mercury Living Presence 434 377-2. 1964.
Colin Carr / Lee Luvisi. Arabesque Z6748. 1999.
Jacqueline Du Pré / Daniel Barenboim. EMI Classics 5 86233 2. 1968.
Yegor Dyachkov / Jean Saulnier. Analekta 2 3167. 2002.
Lynn Harrell / Stephen Kovacevich. EMI Classics 5 56440 2. 1996.
Yo-Yo Ma / Emanuel Ax. RCA Red Seal 82 876 59415 2. 1985.
Yo-Yo Ma / Emanuel Ax. Sony Classical SK 48191. 1991.
Mstislav Rostropovich / Rudolf Serkin. Deutsche Grammophon 410 510-2. 1982.
Heinrich Schiff / Gerhard Oppitz. Philips 456 402-2. 1996.
* I was going to put a link on “stuff” to this but I just played through it again and, you know, it has its redeeming qualities. Ain’t no “transcendent meaning,” though, that’s for sure!