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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Growing Brahmsian

Tom Paxton summed up aging eloquently: “A few less hairs / A need for chairs / A dread of hearing fortunes told.” I can add another telling characteristic: fully enjoying the music of Brahms.

I can’t say it suddenly happened. In fact, it’s probably been sneaking up on me over the past couple of decades, but it was only a few days ago when an ardent longing came over me to hear the Piano Trio in B Major, the opening theme of which drifted into my head and wouldn’t leave until I listened to the piece.

My introduction to classical music came through symphonies by Schubert and Beethoven. I took up the violin in fourth grade, which predisposed me to the fiddle’s corner of the repertory, and it was the Mendelssohn concerto that became my first favorite. When I discovered that I’d rather hear it played by Heifetz than any other violinist (sorry, Oistrakh and Francescatti), I went Heifetz crazy, with a passion only given to adolescents.

Amidst its reliable array of toothsome lingerie ads, the Sunday New York Times magazine section carried ads from the RCA Record Club (choose 12 records for 1¢!). You saw these in other periodicals, but the Times offered its rarefied readers a classical music-specific version (choose 4 records for 1¢!). And there was a four-record Heifetz set among the offerings.

Mendelssohn was coupled with Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2, a strident piece that took some getting used to. Each of the other LPs featured a single work: the concertos by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms.

I have to confess that I was won over by the Prokofiev before I could tolerate giving 35 minutes to the Brahms. The first movement had a killer cadenza towards its finish, which I could needle-drop into, and the final movement had some appealing zip to it, but Beethoven and the others hit the turntable far more often.

Then came my Toscanini fanaticism. No conductor brought more life to Beethoven’s Seventh, so why shouldn’t I try the Brahms symphonies with Toscanini at the helm? Because they put me to sleep. I made some headway with the fourth, and the first has a nice wake-up theme towards the end, but they were a mostly forbidding field.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 snuck up on me. It was during a late-night showing of the movie “The L-Shaped Room,” and there was Brock Peters, pining for Leslie Caron, his neighbor in a seedy rooming house – and the underscoring was so achingly appropriate that I was shocked to discover my nemesis Brahms was behind it.

I spent some time with that piece. It grew on me. The Cello Sonata No. 1, with its improbably fugal finish, soon became a favorite, as did the Violin Sonata No. 3 (Heifetz, of course, with the ill-fated William Kapell at the piano).

Records gave way to CDs, and the Brahms part of the shelf grew to include multiple versions of the symphonies, concertos, chamber music, solo piano works – even that oddly static “German Requiem,” that nevertheless leaves you in a wonderfully peaceful place at its end.

And there, I think, is the key. Brahms’s big pieces don’t leave you terribly far from where you started, but the journey is intense. He puts small, intimate thoughts into big forms. The thematic and harmonic development in his music is deceptively accessible-sounding – but it’s busy, and burrows in deeply and compels you to follow.

If you’re impatient, and that’s me, his stuff is easy to resist. But as the need for chairs has become more pronounced, I’m hearing more and more Brahms in the background.

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