I was fortunate enough to receive this set for my birthday and, six weeks on, having broached five of the dozen discs, and having thus far made substantial connections with three of them, I can say I have absolutely no regrets about my choice. Indeed, there is so much beauty, intelligence and sheer humanity in this little box that I would almost pay the asking price for its pure talismanic value alone, before considering anything so humdrum as actually playing the discs with an electrical apparatus. Having formed a great admiration for the Hyperion label I have every confidence that the seven discs I still have left to play will prove every bit as revelatory as what has gone before. The roster of top class performers they can muster for such a project, and the superb production values that are their hallmark guarantees as much. But I am also coming to the conclusion that Brahms himself was incapable of writing anything mediocre. The capacity for anything slapdash or imprecise was simply not in his character.
It seems to me that all the truly great composers of the Classical era and before have their familiar signatures, which make their works recognisable sooner or later. Spot the composer is a game any lover of `classical' music becomes competent at with time. But if Brahms has such signatures I have yet to identify what they are. Five years ago all I really knew of Brahms were his Piano Concertos and, insofar they were all I knew of him, they were or held his signatures. But then, one by one, I got to know his symphonies, and I don't know if it's just me, but the shadow of Beethoven seems never far away throughout. Right from the first, that some mockingly derided as `Beethoven's Tenth', through to the fourth where, even when Bach is being overtly invoked, it is with the force and orchestration of Beethoven. The Brahms of the Symphonies is a man of nature; broad rivers, tall mountains, leafy forests and a myriad complexions of sky. He is also a man of Spirit and Hegelian Will. Spirit manifested in nature. Then I found the Deutsches Requiem. A work of obvious profundity, even if it is all surface in that one is unlikely to hear anything in it in later hearings that was not there to be heard in the first. But what is it, this sacred work from an atheistic sceptic? What are its antecedents? It seems to be something just plucked from the Zeitgeist, intended to exteriorise all that was best and most noble in the spirit of German Nationalism that was abroad at the time, and perhaps, subconsciously, some of its darker aspects too? To my ear the Brahms of the Piano Concertos is not the Brahms of the Symphonies. And the Brahms of the Requiem is neither of the aforementioned. So, acquainted with at least three distinct aspects of Brahms, I set about this set of chamber works, and before getting halfway in have found at least two more. There is a Brahms of works for strings; septets, quintets and quartets, at least some of which are idealised expressions of absolute music. Their tightrope chromatic counterpoint forms a bridge between the harmonic liberation of Bach, whom he so obviously adores, and the more dangerous freedoms of Schoenberg and the dodecaphonists who would emerge to perplex us in only a few more decades. In such works the emotional content is light, barely interfering with musical structures that someone with the right training might find as beautiful on the printed page as in performance. Against these, there are piano quartets brimming with stormy passions. A bitter-sweet nostalgia that I have only encountered before in French music, from the likes of Faure and Franck, and sounding entirely un-teutonic to my ignorant ear. Grief and loss nobly borne. Heartbreak transmuted to dulled acceptance. Emotions that we have heard before in Mozart, but couched in language that is not recognisable as such. And, for good measure, there are the more than occasional references to Hungarian csardas and verbunkos folk-dance forms, that pick up from Liszt, but that also anticipate Bartok. So my ear makes that at least five and a half distinct Brhams's, for whom I have yet to find the key that binds them into the unified expression of a single human soul. He would seem to be a composer who operated at a unique confluence of currents in musical history.
So, a riddle to solve, and an interesting journey ahead. I have yet to hear any of Brahms' solo piano works or songs. What echoes will I find in these? Beethoven perhaps? Schubert, surely? Or will I hear yet more music whose antecedents and influences are obscure to me? If so, how much of that will be rooted in sources I am simply ignorant of? I have yet to hear much Schumann, who was presumably a major influence. Nor do I know much of Mendlesohn. I am guessing that I need to become somewhat acquainted with these composers if I am to able to assess how much of what is new to me in Brahms originates in his own creative genius. Oh dear. So much music to listen to, and barely the life-span of a mayfly in which to do so. Ho-hum.