Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Brahm's piano music

Brahms was a mighty composer in every sense of the term. All of Brahms music requires depth, conviction, and above all, authority.

The composers that normally first get name-checked as the greats are typically Beethoven, Mozart, Bach... all with some, quite considerable, justification. Brahms is one who slips somewhat under the radar, yet in my opinion stands comparison with any composer and deserves to be counted among the absolute elite.

As sweeping and majestic as his symphonic works are, Brahms himself was first and foremost a pianist - and a truly formidable one, at that. So deciding to rectify a gap in my collection, I decided it was time to obtain a survey of his solo piano music, and so I awhile back I got Gehard Oppitz's complete cycle on RCA, a modern digital recording.

This is music of profound beauty, depth, and above all moment. The exemplary pianism conveys the sheer gravity of the notes. Brahm's delicate melodic lines carry with them an almost transcendental expression; crystallising in the air, the essential silence around them providing a foundation for the tremendous spiritual depth of the music. The playing is often beautifully subtle, in equal balance to the sheer fortitude required to drive the music forward. Yet the music always flows; steeped in the traditional dances from which he drew significant influence. This is not music about flurries of notes, arpeggios, or indeed any overt displays of technique. It is so much more than that. There is none of the whimsical, self-indulgent, and almost childish - perhaps naive would be the fairer term - but above all, superfluous melodic lines that virtually overflow from Mozart's piano sonatas. For where Mozart would lapse into showmanship, every note in Brahm's music is vital, considered, and deeply resonant.

I contrast Brahm's with Mozart since for me they are almost antithetical to each other, despite the fact that necessarily Brahm's owes much to the Classical tradition [that Mozart helped forge] - Brahm's sought a higher synthesis of the Classical and Romantic traditions. Needless to say it should be obvious whom I favour. Mozart's finest works came near the end of his life, where it becomes apparent in his music that there is a spiritual depth, but above all, maturity, somewhat absent from his earlier music - his Requiem being a particular example. No one could deny his prodigious genius and unparalleled melodic ingenuity; but a certain sense of true awareness of the inherently human situation seems lacking, and in such cases we are left with elegant, extremely attractive but perhaps slightly superficial music. One that reflects a certain vanity - though an incredibly productive one - due to self-involvement rather than service to the fundamental Mysteries of life.
Brahm's has a depth and awareness that is incredibly manifest coupled with an incredible economy of line, without ever sounding dry or ascetic. There is tremendous tonal and harmonic complexity in this music, yet it always remains beautifully melodic. Each sonata is, in effect, an entire symphony in itself, with huge dynamic demands.

I suppose it should be obvious that this is without doubt some of the finest and most exquisite music I have ever heard. This is art of the highest possible calibre. It communicates with an erudition that words struggle to approach; this is music in service to Art in its highest and most perfect form; it goes beyond, and suggests towards that which is but Ideality, as the limit of which Art is merely the tool that simply can but strive; can suggest, without stating.

Oppitz, as both communicator and interpretor - whilst I have limited alternative recordings upon which to draw comparisons - plays at all times with what seems like an absolute command and intuitive understanding of the requirements of Brahm's composition. He combines effortless technical mastery with a true musical understanding. It is difficult to imagine this music being better represented than we have here.


Life seems like a rushed miasma interspersed with existential moments. Brief interludes, when, paradoxically, the artifice of this endless torrent is washed away with a sense of the timeless, limitless; the sense of a reconnection with self and yet not-self. Eastern esotericism has understood this truth for far longer than we have in the West, and we are still catching up.

For me, I live for these moments. To make the moments instead a thoroughgoing element of daily life, I suppose, is what you would call Philosophy at its most pragmatic. The requirement - certainly for most people - to make this possible would be a vocation that in itself provides intellectual and above all spiritual satisfaction. For most of us, this is but a romantic fantasy; so we merely greet these moments of existence when we have a chance to reflect, when presented with the wonder of nature or some sublime Art in some form. Finding it in the everyday and the mundane is an infinitely more subtle and difficult art; Buddhists spend a lifetime searching for it, so that it is at once everywhere; which is of course to say, they have to search within themselves.

Age allows this dimension to increase as the understanding draws upon an ever deeper library of experience; when other physical dimensions start to recede, this dimension can continue to expand unabated.

On the challenge of reconciling this spiritual connection and the increasingly industrialised Western world, Julius Evola said it best:

"The most peculiar thing is that this superstitious and insolent cult of
work is proclaimed in an era in which the irreversible and relentless
mechanisation eliminates from the main varieties of work whatever in
them still had the character of quality, art, and the spontaneous
unfoldment of a vocation, turning it into something inanimate and
devoid of even an immanent meaning."

The world needs artists, and equally, it needs listeners. For otherwise it is deprived of its purpose.

Listening to Brahms is but another way to find those existential moments.

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