Brahms twice over

Meticulous in his compositions, Johannes Brahms refused to present anything less than perfect. As such, Brahms’ musical legacy remains among the most valuable treasures of human kind.

Published  on 7 April 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

On 2 April, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hisham Gabr treated audience to a remarkably rich evening with Brahms, with two great compositions — Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op 102 “Double” and Symphony No.3 in F Major, Op. 90 — doubling the power of the event.

The Double Concerto performed in the first half of the evening is Brahms’ last orchestral work. He composed it in 1887 and it premiered in the same year. A composer in the autumn of his life says everything. Years of emotional turmoil, psychological and spiritual wounds already fully expressed: the concerto merely confirms Brahms’ exceptional creativity. By the time it was heard he had established his musical genius and demonstrated his perfection in dozens of works that managed to escape the flames of his fireplace, since Brahms was well known for burning compositions he did not consider good enough.

In the Double Concerto, many violin and cello solo phrases create a unique sound. Brahms repetitively sets the violin’s highest string against the cello’s lowest.

His biographer, Richard Specht, describes the concerto as –one of Brahms’ most unapproachable and joyless compositions, obstinate and mechanical, cold and rigid.Þ The work is the fruit of the mind and shows no evidence of Brahms’ romantic and emotional upheavals. The Double Concerto stresses rather his capacity for creating –an amusing idea,Þ as he described the work himself.

Many technically demanding elements of this concerto require careful coordination of detail between the soloists and the orchestra as well as between the two soloists themselves. While both Basma Abdel Rahim on violin and Kamel Salah El Din on cello coped well with the material, their work presented two well performed monologues, rarely meeting in the required dialogue.

The second half of the evening saw Symphony no. 3 performed. At the time of this symphonic composition, Brahms’ harsh self criticism was still fed by Beethoven’s shadow. Brahms had to measure up constantly to Beethoven and this fact per se delayed his liberation into the waters of the great symphonies, so much so that it took him over 20 years to compose his first. The moment it premiered, it was hailed –Beethoven’s Tenth,Þ and Brahms did not even oppose the critics’ comparisons to Beethoven’s 5th. His second Symphony was compared to Beethoven’s 6th and the Third was called by Hans Richter, its first conductor, Brahms’ Eroica.

Consequently, Brahms became possibly the only composer whose destiny was knotted to that of another genius. Yet this has never diminished his own musical virtues and the phrase –The Three BsÞ — ranking Brahms along with Bach and Beethoven — was coined right after Symphony no. 1 finally saw the light of day in 1876 (the composer was 43 years old).

Symphony no. 3 was composed in 1883 and is the shortest by Brahms. In it, romantic depth forms the background to many contrasting emotions which can be felt from the very first bars of the first movement (Allegro con brio). As the symphony begins, one can’t help thinking about all the turbulent emotions that boiled inside the soul of that genius. Some critics translate the consecutive movements into four seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. We hear nature and the power of life with its contrasting and sometimes opposing colors.

Brahms is not unknown to the Cairo Symphony Orchestra; neither is this new material for Hisham Gabr. Three years ago, Gabr gave a memorable performance of Brahms Symphony no. 1, but in spite of the masterful concert, the Small Hall where it was performed was too small for the grand sound of that work. Symphony no. 3 performed at the Main Hall had the freedom it required as the sound could freely fill the big auditorium.

Gabr’s clear vision of the symphony was supported by thorough preparation. The first movement’s energetic awakening and internal musical dialogues surfaced without roughness. And when in the second movement woodwinds joined the strings dolorous phrases, the orchestra managed to give voice to the relevant emotions unreserved.

The third movement is a landmark of classical music and later on its theme was used in many songs and movies. The colour of cello and clarinet complements the sounds of the violins and celli playing the same theme earlier in the movement, and the French horn becomes one of the orchestra’s shining stars. It would have been just perfect had the oboe not sounded so small and immature.

As the conductor shaped all the details, many solo passages gained their outstanding meaning. The strings gave noteworthy power to many phrases of the symphony, while the conductor’s control over the sharp edges of brass and tympani accentuated character of the fourth movement.

Brahms in the hands of Gabr breathes loudly; even though at some moments the orchestra was carried away by haste, the conductor managed to give justice to the composer’s profoundly expressive charges. And as Tarek Sharara, composer and music critic noted after the concert: –Gabr clearly imposed a very well studied new concept on Brahms with a distinctive everlasting effect.Þ

In the last movement, the energetic accents turn into a warmly calm finale. For listeners expecting a strong closure, the last bars of the symphony might come as a surprise, but the glow they generate is one of a kind. The silence following the double bar feels majestic. Perfection accomplished — underlined by a strong ovation from the audience.

2 April, Cairo Opera House Main Hall; An evening with Johannes Brahms: Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op 102 “Double”, Symphony No.3 in F Major, Op. 9; Cairo Symphony Orchestra, soloists: Basma Abdel Rahim (violin), Kamel Salah El Din (cello), conductor: Hisham Gabr

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