Live Reviews: Fergus Johnston's 'Brahms Begins the Day'

Fergus Johnston's 'Brahms Begins the Day'World premiere Brahmsfest, NSO, Baiba Skride (violin), Gerhard Markson (cond.), NCH, Dublin, 28 April 2006Fergus Johnston’s Brahms begins the day is sculpted from unlikely clay: the material ranges...

Fergus Johnston’s ‘Brahms Begins the Day’
World premiere
Brahmsfest, NSO, Baiba Skride (violin), Gerhard Markson (cond.),
NCH, Dublin, 28 April 2006

Fergus Johnston’s Brahms begins the day is sculpted from unlikely clay: the material ranges from sudden scalic bursts to rich consonant sonority. But Johnston’s writing is concentrated work, his shimmering orchestration delicate and placed. The performance was sensitive, despite a start that seemed a little less than controlled, and I was reminded of Johnston’s earlier work, Binn an tSíorsholais, which was premiered at the 2005 RTÉ Living Music Festival – a work now overdue a second performance – for in both works one perceives a slackening rate of change towards the end. In Brahms begins the day, however, the final section clearly involves a very gradual addition of material – refreshingly, this music holds no secrets. The juxtaposition of extremities – high strings and a deep contrabassoon, and later, very loud brass and timpani above very quiet sustained strings – creates, with clarity, a sense of aural space, like a hollow vessel. But as in Binn an tSíorsholais, the ending – a sudden slap from the whip – provides unnecessary punctuation.

It was something of a blessing that I never read the programme note. According to the notes, the piece is threaded with Brahms references and homages, which was to be deduced by the title, I suppose. Fortunately I was blissfully unaware that that the time signature was ‘in deference to Brahms’ folk music settings’. Why this consistent obsession with ‘educating’ the audience? This piece has two feet of its own, and I have two ears.

A recent generation has come to see Johannes Brahms’ music as something unpalatable, best forgotton, no doubt due to the aesthetic of a period Brahms has come to represent, and its supposed opposition to any progressive late-twentieth-century musical aesthetic. Brahms’ symphonies themselves seem to symbolise the whole nineteenth-century culture of concert-going and ‘repertoire’, which, to the chagrin of many, has survived this long (though perhaps not for much longer).

Generalisations such as these are at once destructive and fruitful, but it is possible to look beyond them, where one perceives, more than anything, the forceless sense of timing in Brahms’ works. One wonders even if Brahms ascribed so wholeheartedly to ideas of Romantic expression. His deep interest in Early Music and rejection of many contemporary pigeon-holes suggest his agenda (if any) was more innocent.

The orchestra may have come across as muffled in the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, but soloist Baiba Skride’s performance was crystaline, most memorably in the first movement cadenza. Brahms’ Symhony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90, is a work of irrefusable energy, nostalgic but eloquent within the rhetorical mould. Gerhard Markson, conducting from memory, brought to it the involvement and coherence necessary to maintain the balanced momentum. Repeatedly, the endings to Brahms’ movements resemble a plane on autoland: a slow, prolonged descent that always knows exactly where it is going. Brahms’ weaknesses as an orchestrator are, however, prominent; the abundance of doubled string octaves amount to nothing but overkill – perhaps he had a few lessons to learn from Fergus Johnston.


Published on 1 July 2006

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly is a composer and a director of Ergodos, a production company and record label.

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