What is it with me and Brahms? I first came to him via those French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and early ’60s, nearly all of which had Brahms playing in the background. One, I seem to remember, was even called Aimez vous Brahms. Well, I did aime him; or thought I did; especially the first string sextet, which seemed to give expression to my adolescent feelings at the time. (I was going out with a French girl. Ah, Martine!!) I dutifully went through all his other stuff: symphonies, piano concertos, chamber music, songs, the Deutsches Requiem. I’ve remained faithful to that sextet, the first piano concerto (the gutsy one), the Requiem, and the Alto Rhapsody. But all the rest now leave me deeply unsatisfied. Is it because the ones I’ve listed are – I think – relatively early works, written while he still had some spunk?
Yesterday we attended a performance of his violin concerto in the Stockholm Konserthus – I believe the first ‘offline’ concert they’ve had there since lockdown. The hall – an architectural gem, by the way – was packed. It was great to be rubbing shoulders again – literally; the seats are quite narrow – with other people. But the concerto still disappointed. It was well played, by a Danish violinist, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, and Kungliga Filharmonikerna under the baton of the excellent Alan Gilbert. But I feel that, like most of Brahms’s music, it doesn’t say anything.
Am I missing something? Probably; I ‘missed’ the ‘something’ in Wagner, for example, for many years before I succumbed. Myself, I’m a Berlioz man when it comes to mid- and late-19th century romantic composers. Just now I’m soaking myself in Bruckner. (I’d like to die to one of his adagios.) Maybe that’s why I currently find Brahms so facile. I’m reminded of a judgement I read once, in a novel I’ve forgotten the name of. ‘Brahms wasn’t a great composer. He just sounds like one.’ Clever. (I wish I could remember who wrote it.) Do other classical music lovers feel the same about him?
If I get Covid through being in a crowded concert hall listening to his music, I’ll know whom to blame.