From conductors and pianists to horn players and sopranos, ten great Brahmsians reveal their all-time favourite work by the German composer.
1. Die Mainacht
The song Die Mainacht is about the moon rising up one night in May. The colours and the light that reflect from the moon stir up all kinds of emotions. So it’s all about the power of the moon, reminding someone of what he has lost. I love it so much. It’s very moving, very touching.
It has a simple melody at the beginning before the song gradually becomes dramatic, with a depressive feeling and atmosphere. It has so many aspects of Brahms on just four pages of music, which makes it really interesting every time I sing it.
But it’s not trying to be intellectual; it’s just very open, very honest, very clear. Every time I read through it, it reaches me somehow.
The Piano Quartet Op. 26 is a mix of a piano concerto and chamber music, with one of the most amazing slow movements. You can feel his youth in it and you can sense, in the slow movement, his tenderness. There’s a phrase in that movement when the violin and cello play together which seems to come from the sky.
What I love to do is to play Op. 25 in the first part of a concert, then Op. 26 – and then you have an idea of what Brahms can be. Playing Brahms’s chamber music is like taking a bath with essential oils. And he makes you feel like you’re embracing somebody very warmly.
The majesty and the mysteriousness of the fourth movement of the First Symphony still remains for me a superior piece of mastery. The darkness, the complexity and the almost mystic start to the movement blossoms with Brahms’s big chorale-like melody in the major key
It’s so soft compared to the huge chorale in Beethoven Nine – Beethoven was a great father-figure presence in Brahms’s life, but he was just an example for Brahms. The young composer had the ingenuity to build his own universe.
When the melody appears, it’s like the sun shining suddenly after this dark introduction. I want to mention the horn melody near the start which is straight from the Alps, and is a miracle of sound for me.
For me, the Clarinet Quintet documents all the feelings associated with Brahms: it’s like his life story. From the first phrase to the last there’s so much expectation. It takes you through this long journey and when you get to the last chord you feel that you’ve reached the end. It really touches my heart because, even before I played the clarinet, it was the first thing I heard on LP.
I can visualise myself even now as a little kid staring up into space listening to this incredible piece of music. Brahms’s string writing is amazing – so well crafted and thought out, and the clarinet part is equally brilliant. Put the whole thing together and you’ve got a work of genius.
There is something very substantial about the F Minor Piano Sonata because it’s got all his youthful enthusiasm and skill and pianistic prowess. But it is also pointing to something very apocalyptic towards the end of his life. In many ways it is quite Wagnerian, although he was polls apart from Wagner.
The Sonata itself comes from a sort of late-19th century, music-charmer tradition, but there is something in the second movement which reminds me very much of Wagner. I think it’s got this incredible kaleidoscope of different moods and atmospheres and skills. And as with a lot of Brahms’s piano works, it’s sort of like a coiled spring. There’s a lot going on that is ready to burst.
The Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52 are some of my favourite Brahms pieces of all. It’s Brahms unfettered by academic convention or constraints. He’s just letting his hair down. It’s the most exuberant, lyrical and smiley series of choral waltzes that you can possibly imagine.
I first heard them on a recording that my teacher Nadia Boulanger made with her star pupil Dinu Lipatti. Even though she wasn’t a great fan of Brahms, her playing with Lipatti has all the right ingredients of virtuosity and enchantment – it’s just beautiful.
They are the greatest fun to perform too. When we do them with the Monteverdi Choir, everyone is just beaming from ear to ear.
The Horn Trio is probably the finest piece of music ever written for the horn, in terms of the quality of the writing. Brahms innately understood what makes the horn the horn. He knew what it took to bring out the instrument’s most satisfying lyrical side, in a way that other composers before and after didn’t really get.
The slow movement is remarkable: it’s very contained, very calm, almost icy calm, until this extraordinary outburst in the last couple of lines of the movement where this huge anguish comes out, and then it goes away again. It’s extraordinary.
I’ve played many Brahms piano works, but my most favourite of Brahms works is his Violin Sonata No. 3. Why? When it comes to love, we cannot explain it. But I remember when I heard it for the first time – not even all of it (it so happened that I came to the concert late).
So I was just under 13 years old when I heard Vladimir Spivakov perform this work in Yaruban in Armenia. Something struck my heart as I listened to it and I fell in love with it for the rest of my life.
Brahms’s F major Cello Sonata is one of the first pieces of Brahms I tackled as a kid. It’s so symphonic and dynamic and heroic and touching… The slow movement is one of Brahms’s finest – it’s simply structured, but he creates an incredible sound world with low writing for the piano in the left hand, the cello singing in its prime register on the A-string, and a pizzicato colour that he uses all throughout.
The piano part is hugely virtuosic and full of colour, but he keeps the cello in the right part of its range so it has a chance to come through. The whole Sonata is incredibly imaginative and daringly modern.
The Viola Sonata Op. 120 No. 2 in E flat major was originally a clarinet sonata but Brahms saw it and made his own little changes to allow it to be played on the viola. The instruments are practically the same register and it’s only in playing techniques that we are very different.
The last movement of the second sonata is a variations movement which I think is a perfect example of a mix of beauty but subtlety of complexity. It’s the late Brahms that I love – the mood, the slowness and the width of the space between the notes. Virtuosity has absolutely no room there, and that’s what I love about this Sonata.