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Positive Feedback ISSUE 42
march/april 2009


Notes of an Amateur - March 2009, Part 2
by Bob Neill


Brahms: Symphony # 2, Alto Rhapsody; Schubert: Gesang der Geister uber den Wassern D714, Gruppe aus dem Tartarus D583, An Schwager Kronos

Brahms, Symphony 2; Alto Rhapsody; Schubert, Gesang der Geister Uber den Wassern, etc. Nathalie Stutzman, contralto. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The Monteverdi Choir. John Eliot Gardiner. Soli Deus Gloria 703.

In the review of Elliott Carter's String Quartets, last time out, I offered the view that modernism aims to move beyond the limitations of what had become conventional norms and forms in order to create a representation of what human experience can be if fully uninhibited and liberated: that modernist art aims to explore and represent a wider and more complex world than we have been accustomed to inhabiting.

Needless to say, not everyone takes this sympathetic view of modernism. To begin with, some see modernism as an aberration. What has brought this critical view to (my) mind lately is the guilty pleasure of discovering P.D. James' mysteries. I don't read many mysteries, but for fun and thinking I might be missing something, I tried her latest, The Private Patient, and she caught me. So I proceeded to read seven more in succession, including her diary/autobiography, Time to be in Earnest. What is especially interesting about James is that she has something else going on in her books besides solving murders: she is a subtle and sometime not so subtle critic of contemporary modernism. She sees it not as proposals for a broader and bolder view of reality but as art gone out of control, artists looking to art for their own vocational and intellectual needs, art conceived as a permanent avant-garde that can continue to draw attention to art and artists, art with no interest in norms or culture as a stable world but rather as a perpetual revolution which requires—no surprise—artists! What an English point of view.

But if in addition to diverting yourself with P.D. James, you are also reading Philip Roth, Ian McEwen, Alice Munro, Mary Gordon, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Hensher, Joseph O'Neill, V.S. Naipaul, and the latest David Mitchell novel, Black Swan Green, you know that, in literature at least, there is a very healthy non-modernist tradition that is alive and well. A tradition whose writers who appear to believe that modernism is not the only truthful way to describe the modern world and that it may in fact be a revolution that has run its course. (Mitchell's first three novels were overtly modernist; the post-modern David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest was turning toward a form of realism in his last unfinished novel—excerpt in the current New Yorker magazine, finding the high jinx of his early work unsatisfying.) There is the sense out there now, regardless of whether modernism is an aberration or, as Milan Kundera suggests (in The Curtain, 2006), the renewal of a tradition begun by Rabelais, Cervantes, and Laurence Sterne, that we can revive the other, less flamboyant, tradition of story-telling that has been going on since the early eighteenth century—with the values, norms, and the stability it provides. A permanent revolution is exciting, especially for artists, but it does not appear to be the sort of place many readers and listeners want to live forever. Foster Wallace's short, largely unhappy, life was apparently a battle over just this realization.

A long introduction like this one ought to culminate in a review of some contemporary non-modernist music, existing alongside contemporary modernism, but the problem is there doesn't seem to be much of it around worth listening to. For many reasons, major composers haven't caught that bug yet. But who has caught it, which finally brings us to today's review, are the best of the Early Music crowd. The kind of non-modernist energy we're looking for has been directed backwards—but with brilliance. Thanks to musicologist Richard Taruskin, we can see that the best of the Early Music performance movement, despite what many of its practitioners and most of its fans proclaim, is not antiquarian attempts to unearth and restore early music. Rather, it is modern art-making that aims to establish a vital, modern connection to pre-modern music. In the performances of nineteenth century composers by one of the best of the Early Music leaders, John Eliot Gardiner, we can hear a musician finding ways to present that music freshly, not as a haven to escape to from the modern world but as a viable alternative to modernist music for interpreting human experience.

"…our main interest is in what Brahms can sound like in our day: what his music has to say to us now." JEG

Gardiner's Brahms' Symphony No. 1 recording made that beloved war horse vibrant and interesting as well as emotionally involving (, revealing detail and sophistication that most modern performances have buried in over-rich production. Gardiner finds qualities in the music that make it newly exciting and satisfying for modern listeners. How does Symphony No. 2 fare?

Listening to Gardiner's latest Brahms recording, I hear a persuasive argument against those who would cast nineteenth century music as 'olde' in order to make modernist music seem more real and relevant. This performance makes the whole issue sound like musical politics and largely an artist's problem. Artists need perpetually to 'make it new' in order to free themselves from the 'anxiety of influence,' the powerful influences of their major artistic forebears. Listeners don't have this problem. Brahms, especially cleansed by a Norrington or a Gardiner of the bronze patina so often applied to his music, is as 'live' today as he ever was. Coming to Gardiner's Brahms 'after modernism,' some would say, these lithe and lyric performances of the composer's music make him more eloquent and essential than he has ever been.

This performance of Symphony No. 2 is the most beautiful I've heard. And the beauty is free to fly. It is not that Gardiner's Brahms is light or lean, it is that it is not heavy or fat. It is airy and radiantly clear, with individual instrumental timbres flying all over the room. And his tempos are surprisingly and ravishingly easy going. As a whole, I would call this performance winsome, which is what the music may well be at heart. The composer's famous orchestral swells are held in check, drama curtailed—all in the interest of tempering emotion, bringing it into the realm of modern credibility. The romanticism we are accustomed to hearing pumped into this music becomes more tentative and a shade darker. Our modern ears respond well to Gardiner's temperance. We are not aware of less emotion but of subtler, more mature emotion. And you can imagine what restraint in the first three movements leaves room for in the fourth movement finale: the stops come halfway out and it sounds like the Fourth of July!

Some listeners will no doubt hear this as wimpy Brahms. I hear it as a more sophisticated Brahms, a Brahms that has been released from romantic myth. I can live with this Brahms more easily than the 'older' one. This Brahms provides eloquent and powerful competition for the Carters, Gubaidulinas, and Saariahos. Is it the real Brahms? Who is to say? Even the composer who knew what he intended may not have known what he actually composed. He surely did not know how time would change it. Once art leaves the hands of the artist, it is a new and protean creature, as we know.

As is the established practice in this series, the program opens with several other works, partly to acclimate us to Gardiner's approach before the entreé arrives. Brahms' Alto Rhapsody, more than an aperitif, less than a major work, gets the same restrained and eloquent approach we are to hear in the symphony; the other works, by Schubert and Schubert/Brahms likewise.

This is a great musical project—do not miss out on it. Two more symphonies and the German Requiem are coming.

System used for this audition: Audio Note CDT3 transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature. Blue Circle BC3000 II/GZpz preamplifier and BC204 hybrid stereo amplifier, Jean Marie Reynaud Orfeo and Offrande Supreme speakers. With Blue Circle BC6000 line conditioner. Audio Note Pallas, Sootto, and Sogon interconnects; Lexus speaker cables.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, and JM Reynaud, among others.