Interpretation and Recording

On my morning commute today I heard a recording of Johannes Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn (Op. 56a, 1873) by an orchestra whose name I didn't catch, conducted by Pierre Monteux. The orchestra sounded French, because of the oboes. Maybe somebody more knowledgeable about such things could comment.

The Haydn Variations is (to my knowledge) the first stand-alone set of orchestral variations ever written, and it set a very high standard for those that followed. The Theme's DNA is very clear in all of the variations, regardless how distant the surface of the music may sound in a given variation. Because of this, Brahms' compositional processes are directly audible, and the work achieves a virtually complete identity between technique and expression.

Monteux' performance emphasized the rhythmic content of the Haydn Variations in a way I had never heard before. The Theme (probably not by Haydn, by the way) obsesses over the number five. It is replete with fives, in phrase length, repeated notes, etc. This performance was built around brigning the fives (as well as the usual 3:2 hemiolas of which Brahms was so fond) to the foreground through accents and balance. These fives are an importan component of the thematic DNA that informs each of the variations, especially the Finale, which is a passacaglia (variations over a repeating figure) whose ostinato (the repeating figure itself) is five measures long. In addition, these rhythmic quirks were highlighted through the generally quicker than usual tempos Monteux took throughout the performance.

It was an electric and illuminating reading. But I noticed that I fought it for a while because I was used to hearing it a different way. That's what listening to recorded performances does. It places an image in your ears that's hard to dislodge when you are presented with performances that are this different. If the score is in your head, this is not as big a problem, but it's still there.

I arrived at work safely, with a new way of hearing one of my favorite pieces, and without spilling so much as a drop of coffee.