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Eduard Hanslick reviews a recital by Brahms, Vienna 1862.

October 11, 2009

Eduard Hanslick reviews a piano recital given by Brahms (Vienna 1862). Extracts from the translation by Henry Pleasants. I have omitted Pleasants’ footnotes.


Johannes Brahms has now presented himself as composer and virtuoso in a concert of his own. His compositions are hardly to be counted among those immediately enlightening and gripping works which carry the listener along with them in their flight. Their esoteric character, disdainful of popular effect, combined with their great technical difficulties, makes their popularization a much slower process that one had been led to expect from the delightful prophecy Schumann gave his favourite as a parting blessing. Of his larger compositions, not a single one had been heard previously in Vienna, and of the smaller pieces only a series (unpublished) of Hungarian Dances, introduced by Clara Schumann. Thus, to the Viennese, he was actually a stranger.

An appraisal of his talent and effectiveness at this time is an undertaking of considerable delicacy. Even for those who have grasped his works more fully than I, it is by no means easy to achieve an absolutely certain orientation. It is not as though he were still in the tumult of first fermentation. More mature creations have long since followed upon those bitter youthful works whose untamed genius was so irresistibly and, at the same time, so forbiddingly attractive. From the two exuberant piano sonatas to the F-sharp minor Variations, and then on to the two piano quartets, the Handel Variations, etc., what progress there has been in the free, secure command of technique, and what a gain in moderation and formal clarity!

One cannot speak here of a beginner. But it is precisely in Brahms’s latest works that one encounters question marks and picture puzzles which will be solved only in his next creative period…………..

Brahms is already a significant personality, possibly the most interesting among our contemporary composers. In the form and character of his music he suggests Schumann, although rather in the sense of inner kinship than of actual imitation or modelling. Only with the most difficulty could such an individual entirely escape the spirit of Schumann, which so undeniably permeates and determines the musical atmosphere of the present. His music and Schumann’s have in common, above all else, continence and inner nobility. There is no seeking after applause in Brahms music, no narcissitic affectation. Everything is sincere and truthful. But with Schumann’s music it shares, to the point of stubbornness, a sovereign subjectivity, the tendency to brood, the rejection of the outside world, the introspection.

Far surpassed by Schumann in richness and beauty of melodic invention, Brahms often matches him in wealth of purely formal structure. This is his greatest strength. The imaginative and intelligent modernization of the canon and fugue he has from Schumann. The common well from which they both draw is Johann Sebastian Bach. Even in Brahms’s first variations (on a theme of Schumann) one feels an uncommon structural force at work. Those that followed – one on an original theme, the other on a Hungarian melody – are of a generally similar standard. He has now surpassed them all with the Twenty-five Variations on a theme of Handel. His talent has thus far found the variation form the most congenial. It requires, above all, richness of formal outline and consistency of mood, which are just his most decisive virtues. The Handel Variations (I cannot help recalling the second and the twentieth, two models of inspired harmonization) won the most applause at his concert……….

Brahms’s piano playing is all of a piece with his artistic individuality in general. He is motivated solely by the desire to serve the composition, and he avoids, almost to the point of shyness, any semblance of suggestion of independent importance. He has a highly developed technique which lacks only the ultimate brilliant polish, the final muscular self-confidence required of the virtuoso. He treats the purely technical aspect of playing with a kind of negligence. He has a way, for instance, of shaking octave passages from a relaxed wrist in such a way that the keys are brushed sideways rather then struck squarely from above.

It may appear praiseworthy to Brahms that he plays more like a composer than a virtuoso, but such praise is not altogether unqualified. Prompted by the desire to let the composer speak for himself, he neglects – especially in the playing of his own pieces – much that the player should rightly do for the composer. His playing resembles the austere Cordelia, who concealed her finest feelings rather than betray them to the people. The forceful and the distorted are thus simply impossible in Brahms playing. Its judicious softness is, indeed, such that he seems reluctant to draw a full tone from the piano. As little as I wish to gloss over the minor shortcomings, just as little do I wish to deny how insignificant they are compared with the irresistible spiritual charm of his playing. This was most deeply effective in Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, opus17………..

I cannot imagine a more profoundly, more genuinely effective performance of this remarkable piece than that which Brahms gave it. What pleasure it is to hear him play! The instant he touches the keys one experiences the feeling; here is a true, honest artist, a man of intelligence and spirit, of unassuming self-reliance!……..

Pleasants, Henry, trans. & ed., Music Criticisms 1846-99 Eduard Hanslick, Penquin Books, 1963, pp. 82-86.

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