Friday, April 14, 2006

Brahms' 2nd: "in this vast, open-hearted silence"

We've been playing Brahms' 2nd Symphony this week, and a radio interview I heard today seemed relevant to this music, with its poetic silences:
Krista Tippett: You have worked so intensively with words, but I sense that your real passion is for experience, and the traditions that you are most drawn to personally have more to do with silence. Is that fair?

Stephen Mitchell: Well, from the beginning I think that's where you end up in the book of Job, in this vast, open-hearted silence. And I think that's where all of the most profound and beautiful words lead, Rilke's included. He would sometimes talk about what lies on the edge of words, and I think you're right - any words that penetrate deep enough know that there's something much more important than words. And the most that they can do is speak with a kind of beauty and depth that will point beyond themselves.

Mitchell is a writer and translator of sacred texts, and this interview was on the subject of prayer. I'm not sure what Brahms' attitudes about prayer might have been, but he does seem to have written music which points beyond itself. Many of my favorite moments of the Second Symphony are in its resonant silences. I wish I could analyze that special quality of contemplation which suffuses these pauses; I only know it as an experience of great beauty.

Brahms was not the only master of the unspoken - another of my favorite composers, Bruckner, made almost a signature of the profound silence. It seems to me that these composers are particularly vulnerable to clumsy performances. Only a hair's breadth of time can make the difference between a full blossoming of sonority and a rote reading, or an overexaggeration. Further, this music with all its spacious chords demands so much sensitivity to the performance space itself. What sounds natural in one hall can sound lethargic in another.

I think Marin Alsop has a great deal of sensitivity in this respect, and is able to tailor her interpretation to the character and resonance of the orchestra and its hall. She placed a great deal of emphasis on upbeats, the quality of leading naturally into a phrase which is so essential to this music. The Adagio 2nd movement makes a great deal out of this quality, and often it is not clear just what is an upbeat and what a downbeat. It's a very special ambiguity, a sense of hesitant passion which can be quite moving (or cause all sorts of orchestral accidents!)

Like prayer, a Brahms symphony is more an experience aspired to than ever actually realized. I'm always astounded by how fully imagined these pieces are, how every color and resonance of the orchestral fabric seems fully accounted for - and how much more there is left to attain. I hope I'll be one of those people still fascinated by Brahms' symphonies after the hundredth time playing them, since certainly these pieces contain enough poetry and mystery to sustain a life-long fascination. If I ever grow bored, I think the fault is probably not in the Brahms but in myself.

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