RECAPTURING LOST SOUNDS
Brahms has been hard to get lately. Habitually played as a security blanket for too many years, it is often a struggle to endure his music. Worshipped and revered, his art is treated oh-so-gently: never taken too fast, never too loud, always within snug barriers. And it is pervasive enough to suggest that he himself was in some ways responsible for this sanctimonious situation, as nearly everyone adoring him pays devoted homage to his music in this way. Something seems quite wrong. He is latched onto in the way denizens in museums and galleries pose before the objects of art as if they were mirrors, feigning to be culturally astute when it is a mere façade. The celebrants suffer for something they cannot really grasp but require it somehow to assuage their self images.
One example among many makes this point: Britain’s distinguished pianist, Dame Myra Hess, ennobled by the King for her valiant raising of public morale by organizing daily concerts in London’s National Gallery during World War II. The spaces were completely emptied out, their masterworks hidden in safety, leaving the barren museum as a painful reminder of war raging outside. Hess recruited musicians to come in each day and play at noon for several years, concerts open to all, paused only during air raid alerts.
We can watch her in action in a wartime film made within the National Gallery. Beethoven gets a good day in her hands (if you can get past her hairdo):
Hess went up to record at the Abbey Road Studios in 1941 and produced an Intermezzo by Brahms, one calming, reassuring, lilting like a lullaby, gently rocking, honeyed melodies trickling down into lower sonic regions.
Hess plays Brahms Intermezzo op. 76, no.3
Readers still awake after hearing this Brahms excerpt may find her Beethoven is positively unleashed by comparison yet this Brahms is barely allowed to get rocking. What would Brahms have wanted? Two eager, brilliant young pianists who knew him and were taken aside for personal coaching leave evidence. Carl Friedberg played an all-Brahms night in Vienna during the 1890s, only to be accosted by a grumpy old bearded gentleman who said it wouldn’t do just to have Brahms for a whole program; one work is good enough and would do the composer a better service. Friedberg was surprised to hear these comments directly from Brahms, who then took him out drinking till dawn and made a date to begin playing and revising all of his music for the young pianist, marking up his scores with second thoughts and clues to decoding his sparse notation, playing for Friedberg nearly every piano piece he wrote but the Paganini Variations: “My hands have too much gout for that.”
Friedberg played the same Intermezzo in New York a decade after Hess’s disc was made. Some unknown angel privately recorded his radio recital: Let’s clock them: Hess takes a full minute, Friedberg soars through it in 24 seconds. The baby is being jostled by a strong syncopated rhythm, unimaginable in Hess, almost jazz-like. But is this mere eccentricity flying in the face of all we hold sacred?
Friedberg plays Intermezzo op. 76, no.3
Etelka Freund was younger than Friedberg and she made it to Brahms, who gave her a lesson after their weekly lunches for nearly a year. All things Hungarian were irresistible to Brahms and he enjoyed fussing over her playing. Freund was stuck in Budapest during World War II and survived, reaching the United States in 1946 and giving some concerts and radio programs. Her son recorded her off the air, and one day on New York’s WNYC she played the Intermezzo, which he allowed out of the keep after years of our meetings to translate his family’s memoirs.
Etelka manages it in 29 seconds. A similar swing is in both of their playing. Hess and her successors seem unaware that this pulse is even present.
Freund plays intermezzo op. 76, no.3
Freund was also close to Bartók. He helped rescue a family treasure: Etelka’s older brother had been given Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto in manuscript. Eager to spirit it out of Budapest when the Nazis came, Freund had Bartók tuck it into his own manuscripts, and before doing so, they detached the title page bearing the composer’s name. He had passed on before she arrived in New York and brought its missing cover. And if you listen to his music, you can detect her playing of Brahms in some details of his own performances; here in the opening of his Suite, a Brahmsian rhythm lies embedded in its DNA:
Bartok Suite played by Bartok
A chain of idea and style in both Friedberg and Freund find a way around the status quo occupying Brahms, their shared shaping implies an authenticity that cannot easily be detected from the notes but rather stemming from their contact with its creator. Unlike the adorers who place art on a pedestal and effectively render it lifeless, these rugged touches are from the nature that inhabited their inspiration and coming into being. There are others involved with Brahms who covey lost messages. More sleuthing produced an upcoming CD project ready in a few months: Explore at your own risk.