Music Note:
Rebuilding a Playlist II
21 September 2018

Perhaps I’ll rebuild the Liebeslieder playlist again. I completed the second version, or variation, shortly after writing about it (10 September), but dissatisfaction with my library led me to order a few CDs, among them a second choral version of the Brahms, this one performed by the Chamber Choir of Europe. I prefer hearing a chorus sing this music, instead of the understandably more common four soloists. There aren’t many choral recordings out there, and although I’d never heard of the Chamber Choir of Europe, I’ve bought enough CDs on the Berlin label to be assured that they would sing it very well — and they do. Even more striking is the accompaniment, by pianists Friederike Haug and Jürgen Meier. Haug and Meier play as if they weren’t accompanying anybody, which is how it ought to be done. The polish isn’t quite as suave as that of Robert Shaw’s recording, which is good, too. It’s somewhat more German, if you know what I mean.

Listening to it with something like rapture, I was nonetheless reminded — because modern life teaches us to take note of the thorns — of Brahms’s not very successful and conceptually quite unpleasant Triumphlied, written to celebrate the German victory in the Franco-Prussian war. And that brought up, for a moment or two, the awful question of how a culture so committed to beauty could have done such terrible things — death camps and so forth. And even thought that they were right. The question is easily enough answered: people are capable of anything when they’re worried about infection (whether or not they have any good reason to be). But it’s still an awful question. I have a recording of the Triumphlied somewhere; I don’t know how the performers got through it. Musically, it’s on a par with Wagner’s American Centennial March — dreckulacious — but its sentiment stinks. 

Sometimes, these days, I feel as though I belong to the last cohort of listeners to enjoy the music of Brahms. Of course I hope I’m wrong. But I know that the authority that this music used to possess — one ought to like it — has evaporated. Someone said to me the other day, about classical music, “I wish I had the knowledge,” as though you have to know about the music before you can enjoy it. While it’s true that knowledge, accrued gently over time, can greatly enhance the pleasure of music, it can never engender it. I fell in love with the Liebeslieder because two of the songs were used in the opening credits of The Group (great product placement), and they thrilled me to my bones. Einem, einem, zu gefallen… I was certainly gefällt. Knowledge had nothing to do with it; I had to ask around to find out where the music came from. 

I remember finally getting Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. I knew it, but I didn’t like it, until I heard the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, led by Kurt Masur, play it in Houston. Suddenly it was the most beautiful music in the world. Just like that. 

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