A rumbustious return

Brahms and Beethoven

By John Shakespeare Dyson | April 21, 2023

On Thursday April 13 I attended a concert at the Zorlu Center, Zincirlikuyu in which the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of the Italian conductor Carlo Tenan, accompanied Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 1. The second half consisted of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral.

Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 1, composed between 1854 and 1858 and thus a work of his youth (he was born in 1833), started life as a piece for two pianos. In the summer of 1854 the composer – a highly-accomplished pianist who had, however, never been to music college – began the work of revamping it as a concerto. This was his first major work involving an orchestra, and his orchestration was extensively refined by his academy-trained friend and colleague Julius Otto Grimm. Another important influence on the work was that of the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, who wrote Brahms a number of letters full of detailed advice.

It was thanks to Joachim that he was introduced to Robert Schumann and his concert-pianist wife Clara. In October 1856 Brahms sent Clara a two-piano version of the first movement of the concerto, and she praised it for ‘the tenderness of its melodies’. Nine months before the first performance was due to take place she attended a rehearsal (astonishing though it may be to us that rehearsals should start so early), and later wrote to a friend that ‘Almost all of it sounds beautiful, some parts far more beautiful even than Johannes himself imagined or expected.’

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that the first performance – in Hanover in January 1859 – was received with less enthusiasm. Audiences in the mid-19th century were accustomed to hearing concertos in which the orchestra was relegated to second fiddle while the soloist let rip with pyrotechnics designed to provoke awe and jaw-dropping. As a result Brahms’s granting to the orchestra of a role as equal partner with the soloist in the creation of the musical narrative was seen as a fuddy-duddy throwback to an earlier age. Today we understand and appreciate the fact that even the parts where the pianist shows off serve a purpose from the point of view of the development of the thematic material. In fact, during the four years (1845-1848) during which the young Johannes studied with him, the pianist and composer Eduard Marxsen had imbued his pupil with a devotion to the work of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, thus ensuring that he was very much aware of the constraints earlier masters had observed. In the long term Brahms’s rigorous attention to form has served him well.

The second performance of the Piano Concerto No 1, this time by the prestigious Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and with the composer himself as soloist, was received with more than just coldness. Wikipedia notes that ‘at the end only a few in the audience tried to clap, and were soon overwhelmed by hissing’. Added to this, the music critics lost no time in panning the work. Brahms wrote to Joachim: ‘I am only experimenting and feeling my way... All the same, the hissing was rather too much.’ (If only the tape recorder had been invented by 1859! I would love to hear a recording of those sibilations of disapproval.) Further humiliation came when the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel refused to print the work, swayed no doubt by the fact that the audience in Leipzig had been so underwhelmed by it. Indeed, it took until the 1880s, when the concerto was ‘taken up’ by the prominent pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, for it to gain popular approval. Von Bülow played both Brahms’s first concerto and his second (completed in 1881) on his concert tours, sometimes conducting them from the piano.

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra was in fine form for the performance at the Zorlu Center, and their coordination with the soloist was exemplary. Mr Kozhukhin’s playing was both technically impressive and highly charged. At the end of each dramatic passage his hands flew up from the instrument as if shot from a catapult, and in the tenderly sensitive parts there were facial contortions as he squeezed out the very last drop of agony juice. At no stage, however, did he allow himself the indulgence of a rubato that might have threatened to throw the orchestra off-balance. It was a disciplined performance as well as a committed one. I was impressed.

I cannot comment on the conducting for the Brahms as Mr Carlo Tenan was hidden from my view behind the raised piano lid. It was only in the second half of the concert that I was able to see him at work. The Beethoven symphony was nicely played, especially by the strings, whose rich, full-bodied tone was underpinned by a satisfying bass line. I was grateful for the fact that Borusan had generously provided six double-basses. The acoustics at the Performance Arts Center may not be perfect, but they did at least allow us to experience the pleasure of being well and truly blasted by Beethoven, especially in the fourth movement (titled Gewitter, Sturm – ‘Thunder, Storm’), with its fortissimo F-minor lightning strikes. I would like to single out the timpanist for special praise for his timing and delivery, and the oboist for sweetness of tone. As a former player of the French horn, however, I am obliged to note that the horns lost their bottle (this being a Cockney expression meaning ‘lost their self-confidence’), and more than one solo bit the dust – all the more surprising as during the Brahms, which has several difficult and exposed horn passages, their playing had been impeccable. The conductor, Mr Carlo Tenan, was remarkably agile, fairly leaping around on his podium, though the athleticism did not detract in any way from his attention to the orchestra’s entries. 

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is too well-known for me to express a preference for any one recording: many fine ones are available. I will, however, allow the deep admiration and respect I feel for Grigory Sokolov to show through by listing his performance of Brahms’s Piano Concert No 1 with the Frankfurt RSO Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Wolff. I especially like his rumbustious last movement:

It is still too early for me to have fully thrown off the effects of the pandemic, and part of the pleasure I derived from this concert was due to a feeling of liberation from enforced confinement that has still not gone away. What a privilege it is to be able to walk into a building and be entertained by an assemblage of professional musicians! Furthermore, we are lucky to have orchestras in Istanbul that are now up to European standards, and thanks in this regard must go to the company that runs and finances the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic. Long may this orchestra’s cellos cheer us, its flutes flourish, and its bassoons and double-basses bellow!

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