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Odd Obsession

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/11/2000 -  
Johannes Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4, Alto Rhapsody
Jennifer Larmore (mezzo-soprano)
New York Concert Singers
Judith Clurman (director)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

Clara Schumann was forced to keep her light under a bushel, and, although she became relatively famous as a performer, she never achieved the greatness that was really her due. She was famous enough, however, to make a vivid impression on the young Brahms, whose voluminous letters reveal a secret passion for this radiant woman right from their first meeting:

I think I can no longer love an unmarried girl-at least I have quite forgotten about them.
They but promise heaven while Clara shows it revealed to us

he wrote to his lifelong friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, in 1854.

Robert Schumann began to see to the career of the young Brahms, calling him the Messiah of Music in his newspaper and arranging for his first public concerts. At the same time as the young man entered his life, Schumann began to deteriorate mentally, eventually throwing himself into the Rhine river to end the inner conflicts which tormented him (he was by that time hearing voices on a regular basis). Schumann was saved by a fisherman and institutionalized and allowed only Brahms to visit him (Clara was persona non grata at the asylum until near the very end of Schumann's final ordeal). The mentor and protégé would play the piano together and these visits did seem to help alleviate some of Robert's anguish. To help out the distraught Clara, Brahms moved into the Schumann house and took over many of Madame's piano students, thus easing her burden emotionally and financially. The principals in our story (and most music historians) would have us believe that their relationship was pure and chaste, but a close examination of their letters tells us otherwise. Clara refers to Johannes with the intimate form of address du, a privilege accorded only to one's closest family members or intimates, while Johannes is not granted the same liberty by Clara and is forced to use the more formal forms of address while expressing the most passionate emotions of love and heroine worship, making his already tortured letters burn with conflict and surviving for posterity as excruciatingly difficult to read (this can only be experienced in the original German and is virtually untranslatable, but the unnaturalness of expression is a painful corollary of this complex love affair). After Schumann died, Brahms and Clara often traveled together and shared the same rooms, and yet we are asked to believe that their relationship was strictly Platonic! A further variation on this theme was the later infatuation of Brahms with Clara's daughter Julie and Clara's inability to write about this incident in her diary until after the fraulein became engaged to another man (the distraught composer presented Clara with the mournful Alto Rhapsody, based on a suicidal character from Goethe, upon the occasion of Julie's wedding). It is also interesting to note that, although Brahms painstakingly kept and catalogued all of his correspondence, Clara burned all of her letters to the young man (they had mutually agreed to return all of their missives to one another later in life).

Expressing the most wretched of emotions and scored for the unusual combination of contralto soloist, men's chorus and orchestra, the Alto Rhapsody is seldom performed in concert and this is unfortunate for it contains some of the most poignant passages in the great man's output. Phrases like "…him to whom balm has become poison…" and "…First despised, now a despiser…" are punctuated with heartbreaking sonorities that represent the excruciating apex of Romantic tonal painting. As a centerpiece between more familiar symphonies (what Schumann used to call a "fair maiden between two giants") this rare glimpse into the composer's psyche made last evening's concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke's more than just another Brahmsian walk in the Alps. Jennifer Larmore has a huge voice, warm and emotive, polished and flexible. Often in concert singing even an experienced operatic performer can be swallowed up by the straight-on acoustics of a full symphonic ensemble directly behind them, but this was hardly the case last evening. Ms. Larmore's burnished tones blended beautifully with the men's voices, producing a sonic event of rare power. In the United States the European choral tradition has virtually died (witness the obscurity of the a capella repertoire of Brahms and Schubert) so it was a wonderful treat to hear singing of such breadth and depth.

St. Luke's is making a special effort this year to present orchestras that recreate the size of the original ensembles used at the premieres of the chosen repertoire. Sir Charles led a passionate performance of the 3rd, filled with excited swirling in the strings of the first movement and sensitive phrasing in the gorgeous recapitulation of the main theme of the third. Further, the alignment of the orchestra was intelligent, the second violins in the front stage left, emphasizing the antiphonal nature of the piece (what was once standard platform positioning has been challenged so often in the 20th century that original seating arrangements can seem positively revolutionary to the modern eye and ear).

The orchestra was particularly invested in its performance of the 4th, one of the very few pieces in the symphonic tradition which ends tragically. Led by the driven concertmistress Eriko Sato, the relatively small string section sounded like a body ten times its size and reinforced the opinion that the old masters scored their pieces correctly, it is just difficult for modern orchestras to produce such an integrated sound, leading to part doubling as a necessary aid to increase volume. After the elephantiasis of Mahler and Strauss, conductors and concert promoters fell into the "bigger is better" trap. If great performances like that of St. Luke's become once again the norm, than maybe modern audiences can appreciate the true genius of the 19th century.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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