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5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Brahms

In the past, we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera, the cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, the violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, the flute, string quartets and tenors.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the music of Johannes Brahms (1833-97), master of stirring symphonic exclamations and moody piano solos. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

The beginning of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of my favorite concerto openings. It’s got drama, intensity and emotion — and that’s before the piano even joins! The soloist doesn’t come in for almost four minutes while the orchestra has a long, thrilling introduction illustrating the themes of the movement. Brahms uses the full orchestra, with a lot of grandeur, so the entrance of the piano is always a beautiful surprise, coming in very lyrical and soft. And after such a long wait!

When my father died in 1997, I made a resolution that I wouldn’t listen to music for two months. And after two months, my father’s voice said to me, “I need you to play music now.” So I turned on the radio. I was taking my son to school, and as soon as I turned it on, I heard that melody. My father played the violin, and I felt a connection, that he was directing me to this song; it turned out it was Brahms. Not long after, we were working on “Supernatural” with Dave Matthews, and this song came up again. I shared it with Dave, and the next thing you know, it went on the album as “Love of My Life.”

Unlike a lot of modern musicians who are hellbent on this individuality thing, I openly admit to thievery. I steal. And I steal a lot from Brahms. There are times it’s unintentional, and times it’s quite intentional. This was 50/50. I did some music for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and I wrote a melancholy piece for Toledo, the piano player in the movie, and string orchestra. I’m writing the melody and I resolved it in the third and fourth bars. I stole that second half from somewhere, but it took weeks for me to figure out where. Of course, I took it from one of Brahms’s intermezzos.

My introduction to Brahms came in 1975 at Carnegie Hall, where Herbert von Karajan was conducting the Second and Fourth Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. I had just auditioned for him; he asked me to prepare the soprano solo from the “German Requiem” so that I could sing it at the end of the tour, and he invited me to the concert. It was an unforgettable experience. I later recorded the “Requiem” with him and the Vienna Philharmonic: I dedicate that solo to all who have lost loved ones or are suffering because of this pandemic, essential workers, and victims of conflicts and tragedies all over the world.

Dedicated to Clara Schumann, this intermezzo is emotional and intense. It has a magical spell, a loving aura that gently touches the heart. The power of this music sends you to a world of introspection and intimate tranquillity. It is a piece that never dies; it alludes to something you can never grab. You listen to its poetry, and it compels you to listen again and again.

I love the spacious, probing, moody Brahms; the Brahms of breadth and depth; the progressive composer whose mature harmonic language anticipated the atonality of Schoenberg. But Brahms, a virtuosic pianist in his prime, also has a wild side, a showy streak. And no music better captures him in that vein than the dancing, dizzying finale of his Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, which he calls a rondo “in the Gypsy style.” On this exciting recording from 1967, Artur Rubinstein, then a month shy of 80, joins far younger members of the Guarneri Quartet.

Here’s more of that jovial Brahms: the finale of his Violin Concerto, a dance with one foot in a sumptuous ballroom, the other in a down-and-dirty village square. After the concerto’s tender slow movement, it’s an irresistible explosion. The soloist here is the silver-toned Janine Jansen; I heard her play this not long before the pandemic began, so for me it’s a precious reminder of what came before — and what will come after.

Brahms gave us music of great emotional depth that forces us to pause and reflect. On the whole, his musical demeanor is serious and beautifully melancholic. His “German Requiem” has lived with me since my teens in South Africa, when I first heard it at an arts festival. Three years later I would turn to it when mourning the devastating loss of my grandmother. Instead of the traditional Latin Requiem, Brahms assembled his own beautiful text from biblical sources, in a setting that gave them new meanings. From the opening motif in the cellos to the first words sung by the chorus — “Blessed are they that mourn” — we are embraced with warmth, comfort and, dare one say, love. I have had to turn to it again during this pandemic to quietly grieve the loss of close friends.

When I was 11, I went deaf from ear infections. After an operation, I was taken to a concert to try out my recovering hearing. The effect of this music was overwhelming. Later, I realized that no other piece of music begins like this: at the crisis, the critical moment. Over the insistent throbbing of a drum, the orchestra soars slowly upward, straining against gravity, struggling so hard yet falling short. It spoke to me even as a child. How could something so heart-rending be so beautiful? Where did this immense struggle lead? I had to know.

Brahms’s most intimate emotions manifested themselves in his final sets of piano pieces, Op. 116 to 119. My appreciation for them grew with each encounter: first, when I learned some of them as an undergraduate piano student; later, when I had the opportunity to study them in graduate school with Kevin Korsyn; and, most recently, as this composer’s last thoughts resounded through our home as my wife, Deborah, performed and recorded the Op. 119 set. These pieces feel personal and remarkably mature in their simplicity, teeming with an abundance of beauty and intricate detail.

I think back to my ornithologist father-in-law wondering aloud, “How was Brahms able to create music that sounds like the vastness of nature?” And to my former teacher ruminating that Brahms was always trying to write textures that were too big for a given ensemble. I listen to the slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet, and I hear, at a microscopic level, that he is creating a boundless world. It’s like seeing the sinew of the body, the veins of the leaves. There’s so much to take in: richness of the harmonies, rhythm of duplets and triplets rubbing against each other. They all gather to bind the sadness and beauty of this revelatory work.

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony never fails to fill concert hall seats with its charm and familiar interplay between strings and woodwinds. I love it because of how it makes me feel. It’s an old friend who visits. Together we walk along a woodsy trail, laughing and reminiscing in a constant dialogue of all the happy memories of summer festivals gone by.

When I went to Manhattan School of Music in the mid-1980s, I’d go to the library to do my listening homework. One day I was preparing for a reading of the Brahms Op. 40 Trio; one version looked interesting because it had been recorded at the Marlboro Festival, which I knew, even as a freshman, was prestigious. The horn player was Myron Bloom, one of the greats — though I had no idea who he was at the time. The pianist Rudolf Serkin and the violinist Michael Tree were also legends. This recording changed my perception of what classical music is — and how beautifully the French horn could fit into the canon.

“Music for the soul,” “medicine for the voice”: These are two of the comments from my singers when we made this recording of “A German Requiem.” To go deep into the text — its phrasing, diction and meaning — was part of a fascinating journey with this great choir and orchestra, savoring the instinctive understanding of the tradition; the warm, velvety choral sound; and the virtuosity of the Berlin Philharmonic. Everything came together. This piece is so well known in Germany that you can feel the audience singing along in their imaginations; it’s music that elevates us as we share it.

It’s not just strange, the change from major to minor: In this breathless ride of a Scherzo, it feels violent, with existential stakes, as the two modes tussle for control with the gritted urgency of antagonists fighting atop a runaway train. The rhythm, too, veers sharply between duple and triple forms, even as the momentum barrels forward. The sense of unity and propulsive flow that grows out of this destabilizing mix of elements is uncanny — Brahms at his intoxicating and brainy best.

Was Brahms a classicist or a progressive? Why not both? Wilhelm Kempff’s restrained, artful approach to the late piano works serves as a reminder of how to bring it all together. Gorgeous melodic lines are shaped with a singing quality; surprising ruptures have a teasing playfulness. And not long after the three-minute mark in a recording of Op. 119, No. 4, Kempff honors some stray, crunchy low-end notes that trouble the otherwise lilting passage — balancing Brahms’s strangeness with his grace.

With and in music, one can withstand the ambient chaos of life and rediscover a possible harmony which doesn’t speak of lost paradise but of paradise found. Romanticism is a way of being. It is a fight for wholeness, for what is essential. It is to go toward that goal with empty hands and an open heart. Music is passion which has found its rhythm. With Brahms, the music’s inner pulse is very close to that of the human heart. Through his signature “Rückblick,” this sense of longing and looking back, his language becomes poignant beyond words.

If anyone ever tells you that Brahms is boring or unemotional — and, bafflingly, that’s bound to happen — just respond with any of the three intermezzos of his Opus 117. After the first, a lullaby of crushing beauty, comes No. 2, in B flat minor. It too is a lullaby, with a lilting melody — as simple as the two-note phrases that open his Fourth Symphony — emerging from gently flowing runs. Despite the cascading architecture, it is not so much a passionate outpouring as an invitation, from one lonely soul to another, for five minutes of deeply felt intimacy.

It took me a long time to love Brahms, whose music once struck me as all too sleepy — “autumnal,” we critics often call it. It wasn’t until time forced me to learn that to live is to lose, I think, that I came to obsess over the dark side of his scores: the grief and sorrow, the loneliness and guilt, the desperation, even the anger. Nowhere is that darkness more engulfing than in his fourth and final symphony, a work with rage at its heart, whatever face it might try to maintain. And no conductor has made its horrors more consuming than Wilhelm Furtwängler.

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