Sunday, January 3, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/3/16: Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn

There's little more stressful than a move, and yet from a move so direly needed as mine was, it proved to be a huge boon to being excited by life again. Suddenly, as I saw the new apartment materialize, life very much felt worth trying for again. And yet, on December 31st, I felt the old black dog stirring very badly. I went into 2015 feeling as though it might be a very bad year, it wasn't the worst year of my life, just one of the cruelest. It started out as the best year ever, and then, roughly halfway through, everything that made it great made it terrible.
I was excited by the thought of a new year, a new place, and a fresh start on all sorts of things. And yet as I woke up early on December 31st, I found myself disturbed by all sorts of thoughts about what 2016 might portend. I barely got any work done, another waste of a day.
As I tried to regroup myself to put a brave party face on for New Year's Eve, I found myself unable to get out of the apartment. And then, finally, around 7:30, I got into the car and out of the car radio came the beautiful, perfect, celestial, Variation 7 from Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn. When I heard it, I knew that this would be the first of many great times this year, a year that will have its blessings, many and abundant.
Brahms has been my favorite composer from the earliest age, and he is home. His music is the modest aspirations of every middle class household which tries to squeeze as much out of every dollar as they can get, wants nothing more than a good community, and is worried that the world is about to turn on everything they hold dear. He is meeting the inevitable tragedies of life with as much strength as we can bear. He is the small consolations of family and friends. He is life itself as we have to live it.
The principle of variation is the key to understanding Brahms. There is something about Brahms's determination to take a few notes and mine it for every possible musical permutation that should be a lesson for the world. No matter how paltry the blessings which life bestows upon us, we can and often must live on those modest means and stretch every motif, every dollar, every blessing, to its fullest extent. What other choice is there for most of us? Most of us are not blessed by nature the way Mozart was blessed by music...
This performance is especially wonderful because it's not quite Brahms. It begins with a jazz improvisation that melds seamlessly and perfectly into the opening chorale. The players are Friedrich Gulda, an amazing pianist in the classics who moonlighted as a jazz pianist (and wrote an amazing set of variations on The Doors's Light My Fire), and Joe Zawinul, best known as the pianist for Weather Report, a famous 70's jazz-fusion band, and before that for playing with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Maynard Ferguson, and Dinah Washington. What's less known about him was that he was also a classical pianist of great ability who trained at the Vienna Conservatory. This is an almost jazzy performance: more extraverted, faster, and more lithe than the introverted perfection that you get in the recording from the four hands of Manny Ax and Yefim Bronfman. Nevertheless, played with more love and understanding than most straight-up classical pianists often manage in Brahms.

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