Frankly Music’s Glazunov and Brahms
Brahms, in his Opus 18 Sextet for Strings, did what geniuses do: Find notes that fit the moment perfectly and are totally unexpected.
Glazunov, in his Opus 39 Quintet for Strings, did what mere competent professionals do: Find notes that fit the moment perfectly and are totally expected.
The comparison was fair at Monday night’s Frankly Music concert, as both composers got the full attention of an all-star ensemble: Violinists Frank Almond and Ilana Setapen, violists Toby Appel and (in the sextet) Stefan Hersh, and cellists Lynn Harrell and Joseph Johnson.
Glazunov lived until 1936, but as Almond noted in his remarks, clung to 19th-century idioms until the end. Maybe that’s why his second theme in the first movement went beyond sweet and into syrupy, even with the great Lynn Harrell playing it. The music did not rise from Glazunov’s time and place, but as an imitation of received musical sentiments.
And when Glazunov sought to drive the music to a climactic peak at the end of the finale, all he could think to do was to step the same bit of not-very-interesting tune higher and higher and louder and louder. The technical device is called a sequence, and it was already a clichéd way to drive a climax in Glazunov’s day. Just when the music should be at its most thrilling, it becomes obvious and tedious. Glazunov’s piece has its charms and its moments, but next to Brahms it sounds third-rate for reasons that are easy to hear and understand.
Brahms also had a far superior sense of transformative drama. Think of a murder mystery in which characters turn out to be something other than we at first surmise, but plausibly so. And the plot turns in unexpected but plausible ways that surprise and satisfy.
We’re always a step ahead of Glazunov in these respects, and so we struggle to pay attention. Brahms is always a step ahead of us, and so our minds race to keep up. Brahms’ music takes on an exhilarating mental velocity, even when the tempo is slow.
Consider a few examples from Brahms’ Sextet: The way the innocent Laendler (a folkish predecessor to the waltz) in the first movement gathers unforeseen passion to rise to an ardent love song; and consider how a second dance tune in the Scherzo starts sweetly and accelerates into a drunken whirl. Brahms transforms the stalwart anthem of the second movement into a sonic vapor over a weird hurdy-gurdy drone on the fourth variation and wreaths it in crazy chromatic runs in the second. At the very end, Glazunov beats us over the head with a contrived climax; and Brahms exits, laughing with an unlikely and sparkling Rossini-style scamper to the finish line.
None of this would matter, of course, without skilled, sympathetic performers. Frank Almond will tolerate nothing less. The fact that Lynn Harrell showed up in Milwaukee on a Monday night to play chamber music with him says a lot about Almond’s stature in the business. He is one of Milwaukee’s most important musical assets.
This program took place at the Schwan Concert Hall at Wisconsin Lutheran College. More about Frankly Music here.
What others wrote: Elaine Schmidt.