Brahms at the Barbican

by Steve

Brahms, sitting down, bearded

I begin with a health warning. I am no classical music expert. There is every possibility that I will use the wrong terminology, or the right terminology in the wrong way. I might try to make it sound accessible by relating it to other forms of music and in doing so sound a bit daft. I might even manage to ignore the music and just waffle on about everything else around the music. But anyway, last night I went to a classical music concert at the Barbican from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra playing some works from Brahms, and in brief, it was amazing.

I love Brahms. The reason I first listened to Brahms was probably pretty arbitrary. I imagine it was because I find it funny that ‘Brahms and Liszt’ is Cockney rhyming slang for being drunk, and I’m a great fan of working through lists alphabetically, hence choosing Brahms ahead of Liszt. His work is reasonably accessible. Early classical music (I dunno, like Bach?) can be wonderful, but is quite a leap into something very different. Mozart is lovely, if a little overwhelming in terms of volume and Beethoven is incredibly powerful, but a bit grumpy. The more modern classical work can be either incredibly challenging, or sound a bit like film music. Brahms seems to pick out the best of what came before him, doesn’t fall into some of the indulgences that followed, and while not obscure in the slightest is still not a completely obvious starting point, so ideal for those people like myself who treasure a little bit of inverted snobbery by swerving the most popular of anything (or at least not alighting at that point and staying there).

I imagine the previous paragraph would make anyone who knows anything about classical music shudder, but there you go.

I love the Barbican. For the past couple of years my wife has given me a membership to the place and it is a wonderful gift. I get free entrance to the exhibitions there, discounts on events and generally feel like a patron of the arts as I wave around my swanky orange membership card. The venue itself has real character. It appears to be a brutalist maze, but once you get in it is warm and welcoming and has lots of corners to get lost in, or just settle in. The atmosphere is less, well, annoying, than more popular arts venues, such as the South Bank Centre. The Barbican is more hidden, on the edges of London’s financial district. It is more a destination than somewhere you just pass through. I don’t think many people go there just to be seen.

There is certainly a very different atmosphere at a classical concert. There was a very quiet and very respectful audience. Now, I can get annoyed by talking at concerts, but here I thought I was being noisy when I shuffled around in my seat. It also started early, 7.30pm, and ended early, 9.30pm. As someone who increasingly likes his beauty sleep, and has always liked promptness, this worked very well.

I was glad I remembered not to clap between movements in a concerto/symphony. It was rather odd listening to a beautiful piece of music end and be greeted by silence. Followed by lots and lots of coughing. Clearly people had been storing up their coughs and sneezes. It sounded a little bit like the audience were voicing their approval via the medium of being a bit ill.

The applause at the end of each half, however, was passionate and long. It went on for ages. I’m not saying it wasn’t earned or appropriate, as the whole concert was wonderful, but several minutes in to an ovation I felt like I was in a mid-twentieth century Communist Party rally and that if I stopped clapping I might end up carted off to a Gulag somewhere.

Anyway, the music. They began with the Concerto in A minor for violin, cello and orchestra. Now, while I’m not that qualified to judge such a thing, this is probably my favourite piece of classical music and would easily make the shortlist should I bizarrely end up a guest on Desert Island Discs. It is such a powerful piece of music, moving from moments of great volume and bombast to moments of quiet delicacy. I think I like the quiet/loud dynamic in a lot of my favourite music. There’s also some great riffs in there that are returned to, played with, reworked and repeated.

Riccardo Chailly, the conductor and Gewandhauskapellmeister (Musical Director? Most incredible job title ever?) of the whole thing, was compelling to watch and gave the performance a real drive and momentum. Everything sounded more immediate and, well, faster, than I’ve noticed in recordings I’ve heard. The quieter moments were far better live than on record as I could see what was going on and the soloists were clear and the sound wasn’t as muddy as my CDs. Leonidas Kavakos on violin was this skinny guy with long hair (but good long hair, rather than embarrassing I’m Trying To Be Cool Even Though I Play In Front Of An Orchestra long hair) giving it some on the violin, almost freewheeling and folky in his delivery, while Enrico Dindo on cello was a fuller, balder and more contemplative, almost stoic. The interplay and sheer display of contrasting characters made for a great spectacle and brought the concerto to life, made it breathe, made in human.

The second half of the concert consisted of Brahm’s first symphony. This feels like a far less obvious and immediate work that the Concerto in A minor, but I loved the complexity and nuances that were brought out. There are so many counter melodies and rhythms to pick out that somehow still work wonderfully as a whole, and sound less like a conflict than just a depth of sound. This was music to get lost in, to marvel at the whole whilst appreciating the parts – the soloists were stunning, again bringing character and humanity to this huge work being played by a mass of bodies. I also liked the guy on the timpani, mainly because watching someone hit some massive drums is always fun.

They ended the concert with a short encore piece. I have no idea what it was, but it was lighter in tone, dare I say jolly, and a nice way to round off the evening. A after-dinner mint to refresh the palate after a huge, incredible meal. Or something like that anyway.

The Barbican’s Brahms season continues this week and next. If you can go along I’d highly recommend it. If not, maybe check out some Brahms on Spotify or somewhere.

Image from the Bergen Public Library, via Flickr