Hamburg Concerto

After Berlin, Hamburg is Germany’s largest city.


The natives seem happiest about their harbors


and most distressed about the incessant construction.


Our hotel was modern and rather posh


and just a few blocks away from the Elbphilharmonie, where we performed in the Kleine Laeiszhalle.


Across the street was another concert hall.

Compared to Vienna’s garish and unsettling celebration of Wolfgang Mozart, Hamburg’s promotion of Johannes Brahms is benign and tasteful.  Probably one just couldn’t sell “Brahms chocolates” or “Brahms bathmats,” anyway.  There’s something about Mozart which can be taken in a frivolous manner, but Brahms just sits there, sincere and forbidding.  I’m not even sure if Brahms has a “hit” like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  “Wiegenlied,” perhaps?  Or the tiny A-flat waltz?  That one Hungarian Rhapsody?  But those charming little tunes crowd embarrassedly in a corner:  They know all too well that Brahms’s best melodies are impossible to reduce down from his vast, innovative sonata forms. 




The tribute by Thomas Darboven is appropriate: a squat cube of granite.


You cross the composer’s square



on the way to a tree-lined lane.


Peterstrasse is charming, with


a restaurant


the Telemann Museum


and the Brahms Museum.


The original house was destroyed in World War II.  The current museum premises are of similar style and vintage.


It’s a humble but uplifting space filled with pictures.  I’ve always enjoyed knowing that Brahms was a cocktail pianist.


There a remarkable number of actual photographs of Brahms. Unfortunately, there aren’t really recordings except for a hard-to-hear cylinder of him talking and playing a little bit of a Hungarian Rhapsody.

Modern performances of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, or Schumann are almost certainly not much like those of the composers themselves or their contemporaries.   But I suspect we are closer with Brahms.  There is something slightly impersonal about his scores:  they are so correct and easy to understand.  They are “performer-proof.”   (Admittedly, some think everything has slowed down a lot since the 19th century, maybe especially Brahms.  It’s hard for me to really believe this, though.  Maybe the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto…)

Pianists of the early-20th century barely played Brahms (at least in comparison to Chopin or Liszt) because they thought there was less to engage a performer’s virtuosity and imagination.  Vladimir Horowitz said he didn’t like Brahms;  for that matter, Tschaikowsky and Benjamin Britten didn’t either.  Even today there are those that consider Brahms rather stodgy.

There are times when I understand that opinion, for Brahms never really lets go to write something that seems only inspired, not controlled as well.  But for a novice excited about classical music, he is a superb gateway into the mysteries.  He certainly was mine!  I’ll never forget my first contacts with the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the two Piano Concertos, and the Violin Concerto.  Whatever little I understand about symphonic music, I owe to Brahms and those five works in particular.   One needs only a little bit of basic knowledge to perceive how tiny cells bring forth epic development. 



Brahms wrote a few important larger solo piano works, but most would agree that his greatest solo works are on a small scale. The staff let me run through a few phrases of Intermezzos on a piano Brahms used with students.  As with previous interactions with historical instruments, I was impressed with the indelicacy of touch and tubbiness of sound.  It has its attractions but there is no way to get an excessively “pretty” sonority like on a modern Steinway. (The Pleyel heard on most of Alfred Cortot’s important historical recordings has something of that 19th-century clank.)

The helpful staff then put in a CD by an unfamiliar pianist.


Detlef Kraus (Wikipedia) was a revelation.  Like many, I hold Wilhelm Kempff’s recordings of late Brahms in highest regard.  But I will have to make room on that top shelf for Kraus as well. 

Perhaps even more impressive than his glorious Intermezzi was on another CD where Kraus offered a sympathetic account of the early second sonata in F-sharp minor.  This work is seldom played, usually with good reason.  A youthful Krystian Zimmerman on DG does well, but he (and others) treat it as a virtuoso piece, and No. 2 may just be too slight for a barnstorming approach.  In a gentle and rather meandering fashion,  Kraus sings and whispers on a slightly clanky piano, shaping each phrase with care — but not too much care.  Delightful.

Kraus passed away recently at 88.  He was apparently beloved in Germany, especially in Hamburg, but doesn’t seem to have had much of an American reputation.  However, his now out-of-print CD’s cost an arm and a leg on used sites, a good sign that  insiders know of his importance.  Luckily, most of these obscure Thorofon discs are available on iTunes!  Get them while you can…

Speaking of the internet, IMSLP offers not just free scores of old editions of all of Brahms, but in some cases handwritten fair-copies.  Does all this access mean that we treat everything with less reverence?  In the wake of seeing Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic last week I had been browsing autographs of Brahms 3 — not just the full score, but the two-pianist version as well.  Which is probably why the partial autographs hanging on the walls of the Brahms Museum hit me with lesser impact than they would have a few years ago.


Looking at the framed first page of the Handel Variations prompted thoughts of György Ligeti.  As with many professionals, there could be something a little back-handed about Ligeti’s admiration of Brahms.  He picked Rudolf Serkin’s recording as a desert-island disc not for the piece, but for the performance.  I agree with Ligeti, the Serkin rendition is one for the ages, a perfect mix of Old World charm and New World stress.  I have the CD, but would argue strenuously that the LP is the one to get.  There’s nothing better to have in your collection than that LP. 

Ligeti himself wrote some of his greatest music while living and teaching in Hamburg.  He even wrote a tribute, the Hamburg Concerto.  In this case, I would argue that the CD is fine, but that to properly understand Ligeti’s surreal fine-tuning of natural horns Hamburg Concerto must be experienced live. 

At any rate, Ligeti was arguably a modern Brahms:  like the elder, he loved advanced theorems and games but wasn’t really satisfied unless he gave a comparatively lay listener a guide to the codes. 

It’s not too soon for Hamburg to add Ligeti to the same street that houses Telemann and Brahms.


Back at the venue, they let me into the back of the bigger hall where the NDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock was rehearsing Brahms 4.  It was just a rehearsal, but I was wowed nonetheless.  The rhythm was spectacular, pulsating but also full of rubato. 

Crucially, the size of the hall was much smaller than New York (and most American) symphonic halls.   During that aforementioned Gilbert/NY Phil Brahms 3, I sat in the back of Avery Fisher, which inevitably meant a rather disconnected experience.  Sitting in the back of Laeiszhalle I felt every thrust of Brahms’s basses. 

I paid $60 for the Philharmonic; a comparable seat on the pricing scale (although actually a much better seat) for the NDR Symphony would be 16 euros.  As I write this on the train from Hamburg to Frankfurt, a conductor is unselfconsciously going over a large score to some modernist choral work in the dining car.  Canonical classical music often makes more sense in Europe than in America:  I always try to go concerts on days off and really wish I could see Hengelbrock and the NDR in performance tonight. 

With any great composer there is always more to discover.  Still on Brahms 3, I asked an expert to recommend a recording.  I had Szell, Furtwangler, and Klemperer (the last being my favorite for some reason) but wanted another opinion.  The expert said Bruno Walter, which turned out to be excellent advice.  But the coupling, Brahms 2, was even more revelatory, simply because I’d never liked that symphony all that much before.  Now I can’t stop listening to it.