Saturday, 17 December 2011

Art that Conceals Art (or Does it?)

I've been enjoying re-listening to an old CD that came free with a music magazine a few years ago. One piece stood out and give me so much pleasure that I wanted to post about it and recommend it to you. Unfortunately, there's a snag. There's no complete performance of it on YouTube. Five out of seven movements are available though; however, it's hopefully not too unkind to say that the amateur performances  linked to aren't all of the highest quality. So, here I am about to enthuse about a piece of music which, alas, I can't offer you the means to fully enjoy. Still, if you like the sound of the piece in question, there's always the option of buying it!! So, with that in mind...

Johannes Brahms has a well-deserved reputation for being among the most musically sophisticated of the great composers - a consummate craftsman; a far-sighted structural architect; a man intimately aware of music history and his own place in it; an artful writer of counterpoint, ingenious in his sleight-of-hand harmonies and cunning cross-rhythms; someone whose phrasing knowingly avoids the four-square; and who was so scrupulous that he destroyed vast swathes of music that he didn't consider good enough to put before the public. An encyclopedia I was given as a boy told me, in no uncertain terms, that Brahms is a composer who appeals more to connoisseurs than to the general listening public. That very public, however, flocks to concerts where the four symphonies, the four concertos, the German Requiem and the Haydn Variations are to be performed, so my old encyclopedia certainly seriously underestimated the popular appeal of certain of Brahms' pieces. Still, that sophistication does mean that some of his works don't immediately fully hit the spot and will not fall effectively on the ear unless you get to know them better. (The Clarinet Trio was such a piece for me). Moreover, you certainly can't use much of Brahms' music as mere mood music without losing most of the experience.

That's not to say that Brahms can't be 'populist' when he wants to be - there are those Hungarian Dances after all - and there's bags of uncomplicated charm to be found in the Waltzes Op.39, the world-famous 'Brahms' Lullaby' and the two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes (plus bags of subtlety too). Some of his many songs are similarly easy-on-the-ear. Plus there are such sweet, direct little gems as the swaying, pastoral Ave Maria, Op.12. The subject of this post, the lovely set of Marienlieder ('Songs of Mary'), Op.22, is no less instantly appealing - but nor is it in any way unsophisticated.

If in many of his motets Brahms exulted in the ways of old polyphony, in these seven part-songs for mixed choir he savours the relative simplicity of German homophony, such as you find in chorales and folk-singing. The Marienlieder set the words of old folksongs - all but one for Christmastide - to tunes of the composer's own invention. The result is a set of hymns, yet so melody-driven are they that you might take them for folksongs - which was surely the effect Brahms intended. But. Brahms being Brahms, harmony is used with considerable sophistication and what might seem, at first hearing, to be simplicity itself is, on closer listening, revealed to have many depths. Like the chorales of Bach, the elegance of the part-writing is especially satisfying, plus there is plenty of half-hidden counterpoint. So there's something for easy-going listeners and something for connoisseurs too!

Just take the second piece (though you probably can't, as it isn't on YouTube), Maria's Kirchgang ('Mary Going to Church'). This is a beauty, instantly beguiling, but some of the harmonies in the main section wouldn't be out of place in such a complex piece as the German Requiem, even though its central section sticks to bread-and-butter harmonies suggestive of bells. Even bread-and-butter harmonies can become fresh and full of magic in the hands of Brahms though, as here, and as in the horn-call-inspired harmonies of the central section of the fourth song, the delightful Der Jager ('The Huntsman') - the most folksong-like of all the songs. The first piece, Der englische Gruss, ('The Annunciation'), another beauty, boasts a joy-inducing key change before the ecstatic cries of 'Maria! Maria!' The third song, Maria's Wallfahrt ('Mary's Pilgrimage', not on YouTube either) has old-time harmonies that give off more than a whiff of Bach. Ruf zur Maria ('Call to Mary', No.5) has a lovely refrain whose simplicity provides balm following the increasingly complex verses. Magdalena (No.6), the only setting that isn't Christmas-based, being about another Mary altogether) is graced (rejoice, O you connoisseurs!) by unexpected phrase-lengths. Befitting its Eastertide subject, it is graver in character than its companion and features some openly imitative writing. The utterly charming final song, Maria's Lob ('Mary's Praise') plays a little trick that is found in many folk music traditions - that of switching metre (here from 3/4 time to 4/4 time and back again) in mid phrase. Try beating a waltz rhythm at the start and see how hard it gets, very quickly!

Please try and seek out complete performances of the Marienlieder, Op.22 of Johannes Brahms. Like so much of Brahms' music, they are pieces you can hear over and over again and keep finding new subtleties - even if they sound like German Christmas carols.

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