This month, the New York Philharmonic begins Brahms the Romantic, an exploration of the music of the 19th-century master that will continue through to the end of the season. In four programs between now and June, all led by Music Director Lorin Maazel, the Orchestra will perform all of Brahms's symphonies and concertos. The first two programs (February 14 & 15 and 17 & 20) feature Emanuel Ax playing two of the composer's piano concertos. In this conversation between Mr. Maazel and Mr. Ax, moderated by Stuart Isacoff, the two artists explore their shared fascination with Brahms.
The most obvious question to begin with is, why Brahms?
Lorin Maazel: We set up a tradition some seasons ago of doing a cycle devoted to one major composer each year. We did Beethoven, then Mozart, and I thought it would be fun to focus on Brahms. There are only four Brahms symphonies, so that seemed like a good point of departure, and the concertos are, of course, monumental.
To present the symphonies in order is to follow the development of a maturing genius; after all, Brahms did not write his first symphony until he was over 40, overwhelmed by the precedent established by Beethoven before him. It was a very daunting task for the younger Brahms to tackle the symphonic form.
Emanuel Ax: Yes, he seems to have felt the weight of history very acutely. He was well aware of those who had come before. He even produced an edition of Bach and a complete edition of Chopin, as well as of Schumann. Don't forget that he was advertised by Schumann to be the next great German composer. That, I think, caused a lot of trouble in his mind‹he suffered from it. And because he was so conscious of the past, he used people like Beethoven as a model, but in a very solicitous way. The D minor Piano Concerto of Brahms is very connected to the C minor Piano Concerto of Beethoven, but this is not a case of copying‹rather, he's "standing on the shoulders of."
Some of the writers of his day criticized Brahms as being too conservative, and not "romantic" enough, especially in comparison to Wagner.
LM: It's true he was accused of being overly concerned with structure and classical forms. But if you listen carefully to his music, there are flights of fancy that presage Impressionism, and you'll even find some of the techniques later used by 20th-century composers. There is a feeling of improvisation in the First Symphony, for example, that I find delightful and try to emphasize as an interpreter. I think that Brahms goes beyond categories; when speaking of a masterpiece, labels are basically irrelevant.
EA: What some criticized in this music I see as positive. I'd say that his is deeply romantic and touching music, but at the same time it is solidly structured. To me, that's a virtue. I think people feel the two sides, and that's what makes him so great and so popular‹the fact that the organizational side is always combined with the rhapsodic side.
LM: I feel the same way about the "chamber music" aspect of Brahms's symphonies: there is a certain intimacy and refinement in these pieces which should be emphasized, not sloughed over in an effort to over-dramatize the music.
What do you most look forward to in these programs?
LM: Like most musicians, I tend to identify with the music I'm performing at the moment, and therefore I don't have favorites. Having said that, probably the greatest intellectual satisfaction I have is in performing the Brahms Fourth Symphony. There is a restraint in it, a sobriety, a repressed melancholy and a concentration of energy that I find, as an older musician, absolutely satisfying. And like every great composer, he had a gift for writing powerful melodies. There isn't a bar of his music that doesn't soar.
EA: I agree. What I get from this music is not ecstasy, as you would get from Wagner, but incredible beauty with resignation. It often brings to my mind the myth of Sisyphus, a man who kept pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down. Brahms is always reaching and falling back.
Of course, playing his piano concertos is incredibly daunting. You need a lot of practice time, and it helps to have experience‹the first 20 years don't count! Yet in some ways he is my favorite composer. I'm privileged to play his music, and I'm extremely excited to be performing it with Maestro Maazel. These are works you can play over and over and still be thrilled.
Stuart Isacoff is editor of the magazine Piano Today and author of the book Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization.