Brahms, Schmidt, Elgar
No one doubts the technical skill of Johannes Brahms. The composer’s problem, however, was that his music was highly derivative, unoriginal, and quite often boring. Nevertheless, place the instruments in the hands of the Vienna Philharmonic and it becomes perfect music to wake up to on a Sunday morning.
A morning concert opened the final day of the Salzburg Festival. Brahms’ Symphony #3 opened the performance. The strings produced lush sounds to fill the hall, while maestro Semyon Bychkov, who seems to have become a favorite of the Philharmonic recently, found ways to keep the playing fresh. All I was missing in my seat in the Large Festival House was breakfast (I had juice and a yoghurt before leaving home, and cooked a full breakfast back at home after the concert). Brahms may not be my favorite way to end a day, but with these forces on the stage it was a great way to start one.
Franz Schmidt, whose music remains under-appreciated, contributed Symphony #2 after the break. The contrast with Brahms was evident. Schmidt, a devout Catholic and one-time disciple of Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory, looked backwards like his teacher to earlier forms of music, especially from the church, for inspiration and technique. But unlike Brahms, Schmidt’s inspirations from the past pushed him into the 20th Century. This Symphony, originally conceived as a simple piano work that grew out of control, was well-grounded but expanded the art of the possible without breaking the mold. The final chorale, rising triumphantly from the brass, was pure Bruckner – if Bruckner had lived 20 years longer – except that it wasn’t. Where Brahms would derive inspiration from Beethoven and others and just re-write the music of the earlier composers in technically superb but less-exciting ways, Schmidt took his models as a starting point and built something new. The Philharmonic and Bychkov made it all riveting.
We did get an encore, although I might prefer not to mention it: “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Yes, it is beautiful (especially with the Philharmonic), but it seems that I have recently heard it performed as an encore (plus once as part of the whole work) by every orchestra on the planet, and frankly I wish they chose something else. Maybe the Blue Danube would have been appropriate for this concert (Brahms once autographed a score of Johann Strauß II’s waltz: “unfortunately not composed by Brahms”)? Nope, Elgar’s Nimrod again.