Orchestral Brahms and "Historically Informed Performance": A Progress Report

by Bernard D. Sherman (translated version appeared in Diapason France, October, 2009; Diapason titled it Mûrissements d'époque "The Maturation of Period-instrument Performance." Reference: October issue of Diapason France (Diapason, Octobre 2009, pp. 34 - 37.


In 1990, John Eliot Gardiner became the first conductor to record the Brahms Requiem with a period-instrument orchestra. In 2008, he became the first to re-record it this way. After 18 years, the novelty of using old-fashioned instruments in Brahms had passed; today, Gardiner's return makes us ask how much the historical approach has matured over two decades.

The earlier Gardiner showed his youthful excess above all in his rhetoric, when he boasted that period instruments and articulate phrasing revealed a thinner, more vigorous Brahms, previously hidden under modern adipose. His claim of special insight was fodder for Richard Taruskin's critique of the historically informed performance ("HIP") movement. Taruskin noted that Brahms's music could seem just as heavy and over-intellectual to opponents in its own time as it later would to, among others, the pre-1990 Gardiner. Responses to Brahms have ranged from hot to cold since the ink was drying; the polarization results not from changing performance practices but from the diversity of human psyches.

Still, tastes can shift collectively. A cohort of Cold-War era listeners found something irresistible in Herbert von Karajan's Brahms, but a later group (including me) reacted against Karajan's smooth surfaces, perhaps as part of a newer cultural hunger for what felt raw and crunchy. The revival of historical instruments fed this hunger while giving it the respectable cover of historical restoration. Taruskin argued that HIP tastes and styles reflected the second half of the 20th century, not the 19th. With such takedowns still echoing, Gardiner now avoids what he calls "the dreaded 'authentic' tag." Call that a sign of maturation, if you will.

Maturity also tends to produce conciliation. In the 1980s, period-instrument rebels battled their mainstream elders over turf; today, they not only coexist peacefully but also frequently hold dual citizenship. Consider the ultimate of insiders, the Berlin Philharmonic. In the eighties, as Karajan's orchestra, it epitomized a line and blend so smooth as to hide human physicality. In 2009, however, the Berlin has a variety of styles at its disposal, and many of its players know how to use period instruments. Their current music director, Sir Simon Rattle, has studied historical performance thoroughly and has even conducted a period-instrument orchestra in Brahms. I look forward to hearing how he and his Berlin players use or reject historical evidence in their forthcoming Brahms symphony cycle.

An example might come in the phrase for horns and winds at the beginning of the Second Symphony. It is four bars long and Brahms could easily have written a single slur over it, emphasizing its melodious flow. But it is built out of one-bar motifs, and Brahms's tie-lines extend only over each of these. Why did he write four short slurs instead of a single long one? Many performers have preferred the latter, smoother approach. The most influential example was, indeed, the Berlin Philharmonic, which sought flawless legato in this passage on the many recordings it made between 1938 and 1988.

We cannot know what Brahms would have asked for if he had been resurrected to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in, say, 1983. The horn had changed technologically since he went to the grave, and modern seamless phrasing might have awed him. Still, in his lifetime Brahms may not have appreciated this kind of legato. He once wrote to his closest associate, Joseph Joachim, that the second note under a two-note slur is to be shortened. Independent corroboration seems to come from a 1933 typescript purporting to detail the Brahms conducting of Fritz Steinbach, a musician Brahms praised with uncharacteristic warmth. Steinbach's reading of these horn motifs is conveyed by a staccato dot over the second note and a breath-rest after it.

MUSICAL EXAMPLE 1: How Fritz Steinbach - a conductor Brahms admired - phrased the opening of Brahms's Second Symphony, as reported by Walter Blume in his unpublished 1933 typescript, Brahms in der Meininger Tradition (posted here).

In his superb book about the Brahms symphonies, the musicologist Walter Frisch notes that in the Second's opening phrase the simple lyricism is undermined by an off-kilter bass-line-and also by those short horn motifs. To reconcile the melodious flow with the motifs is a permanent artistic challenge. Karajan opted for pure melos, while the period-instrument rebel Sir Roger Norrington, in his 1992 recording, separated the motifs so sharply as to overemphasize the third beat of the bar, making each bar line too audible. Now, in a convenient example of HIP maturation, Gardiner's players succeed in balancing the contradictions. They let us hear some air at the end of the motifs but they still shape a long, singing phrase.

The natural horns they use deserve a discussion of their own, which can be found in the sidebar. But the players exemplify another change since 1990: they show that mastery of period instruments continues to soar even after some of us assumed it had peaked. Moreover, dual citizens now include mainstream celebrities such as violinist Viktoria Mullova and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, not to mention Rattle, and for that matter Gardiner, who has conducted first-rank mainstream orchestras.

Such border-crossing has reinforced the insight that sound and style depend far more on the player than on the instrument. It also reminds us that the sounds we produce from period hardware inevitably reflect modern ears. The quest for historical performance seems even more quixotic when we realize that playing styles and instruments were much more diverse in Brahms's time than in our own. There was no single "period" sound or style.

Performers can confirm all this more easily now than they could in 1990. Publication has given easy access to the written historical evidence, and the most important advances center on recording, which was an infant technology in Brahms's late years. In 1992, Norrington was able to dismiss early recordings of orchestras; they told him nothing, he said, about Brahms. No informed critic could say that anymore, given digital distribution of most of what was recorded and the extensive research and analysis of early recordings by Robert Philip, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (in a superb new online book), and others.

Early recordings, they explain, make us realize how misleading the written evidence can be in conveying what performers actually did. Moreover, these recordings prove just how unrecoverable period performing styles are. The advent of recording, Philip shows, divided the psychology of performance into two geological eras, "before" and "after." Ensembles of Brahms's day never tried to sound as perfect as a studio recording; they couldn't have imagined such a thing. The members of a string section often each bowed and fingered individually. "Ensemble"-the subsuming of individual styles into a group interpretation-was much looser; "precision" and "fidelity" were, by modern standards, sometimes barely existent. Philip demonstrates that we can't return to the mentality of the pre-recording era even if we want to.

The historical-performance quest has one other inherent limitation, expressed in Artur Schnabel's maxim that that there is no "safe path to wisdom." For some musicians, the HIP movement was a search for algorithms: a dot over a note meant one specific articulation, a metronome mark indicated one exact tempo. Follow the recipe precisely and you'll get the authentic meal. But in differing climates any recipe must be altered, and besides, diners crave the flair of a gifted chef. As a practical musician, Brahms withdrew his metronome marks for the Requiem because he could see that they over-determined one element of performance and thus confused sensitive performers. He knew that performers must each seek the right tempo for their own performance in their own circumstance. In a recent recording of the Brahms Requiem, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are not constrained by metronome numbers; I am curious to hear how Gardiner handles them.

How, then, is HIP Brahms aging after 19 years? The most important sign of its maturity is the increased ratio of excellent performances to duds. I was put off by the Norrington symphony cycle, and had mixed feelings about the first Gardiner Requiem, but I'm gripped by the two entries released so far in the Gardiner symphony cycle (and I eagerly await the Third, to be issued after this article goes to press). HIP Brahms is thriving more than I expected, because it continues to rekindle musicians' passion for Brahms. As more evidence and analysis-and vivid performances-keep emerging, I suspect that it is entering a healthy adulthood.

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SIDEBAR: Brahms and the Horn (I'll post a link separately in the version it turned into - for Early Music America, Spring 2010)

POSTCRIPT: Sir Simon doesn't do anything overtly historical in the symphonies. Why should you when you got the Berlin? The Second is really really good. The Fourth shows how bowled over he was by Giulini's Chicago recording of the Fourth, rightly. The Third - I hear it differently, but who the heck am I?

Author's bio: Bernard D. Sherman is a producer and music host for Iowa Public Radio. He is the author of Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997) and co-editor of Performing Brahms (Cambridge University Press, 2003). His writings have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, and many other publications, as well as in The Cambridge Companion to Conducting (2003) and Oxford's Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (1998).