Quietly and calmly, away from the pressures of work, and as I strip away some of my jobs, I am returning to the kind of state I used to inhabit a long, long time ago when listening to music was less of a duty and more of a pleasure. Now, let me clarify – listening to music is rarely not a pleasure (though I could name a couple of composers) but the choice of what to play is usually dictated by the next concert, the next lecture or the next project.
Yesterday I sat down at the computer and scrolled through my music library for something to listen to without any sense of compulsion from outside forces, and there it was – the Violin Sonata in G by Johannes Brahms, performed by Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Without doubt this is one of my very favourite recordings in the entire repertoire, the combination of work and performance so elegant, refined and understated that it transports me far, far away from this world to somewhere words cannot reach.
That place is what music is all about, of course, especially abstract music such as that written by Brahms, which is all about the motion of the notes and frequencies themselves rather than indulging in an attempt to represent the non-musical world. You might argue – and I would have to agree – that music written by humans has, perhaps only at the deepest level, some kind of emotional spur, but just as Mahler stripped descriptions away from his symphonies, so these sonatas by Brahms are, as so many like to say, all about the music.
The piece itself is surprising from its very opening, the expected bold announcement of a new work instead replaced by the most gentle of utterances with that characteristic rhythm and gentle lilt of Brahms’s writing. The sweetness of Perlman’s tone and the eloquent support offered by Ashkenazy blend together to produce a sound of rich sweetness, especially in the aching central movement. I love that quotation about Brahms having a very short neck, the heart always controlled by the head, but I cannot get out of my mind that there is something very personal happening here. That beard, as they also like say, hid a great deal.
That the opening rhythm returns at the very end of the piece is a classic Brahms move, also encountered in the Clarinet Quintet, and it has the same effect here. A wistful nostalgia for things past, for memories of a long time ago, which makes me wonder if my fondness for this piece, this performance, might be due to to the passage of time, but no, I loved the Clarinet Quintet as a teenager and still do, and have admired this recording of this sonata for many years too. In fact, I am listening to it again as I write this and, like those symphonies by Sibelius or Lutoslawski, the works by Tallis and Byrd, or the entire output of Bach, I doubt that I shall ever grow tired of it and hope that I might one day emulate it.