Brahms. Very serious. Or … ?

Here are three calm, reflective pieces (with some turbulence under the surface, because life is never perfect).

Now here’s the thing. If you’re hearing this music for the first time, you’ll probably think the tempo is fairly slow and relaxed. But if you’re familiar with these pieces, if you’ve been listening to the many great recordings out there, you might find that my version is shockingly fast.

Here’s Grigory Sokolov taking 18 1/2 minutes to amble through the pieces that I dispose of in a mere 14. Here’s Radu Lupu with nearly six minutes for the first piece alone. If you look around, you can find a couple of people who do outpace me, mostly older recordings, but we’re definitely in the minority.

So why am I in such a hurry? I have a couple of theories about this.

Number 1 has a quotation at the top, at least in the Schirmer edition that I bought many years ago.

Sleep soft, my bairn, now sweetly sleep,
My heart is wae to see thee weep
— Scotch, from Herder’s “Volkslieder.”

So it’s supposed to be a lullaby. And lullabies are slow, right? But if you want to rock the baby to sleep, the cradle still needs to be in motion. Slow isn’t the same as actually standing still.

All three of these pieces have some version of “andante” as a tempo marking. I think this is the most controversial word in classical music. You see, there’s this tradition that “allegro” means fast (close but not quite!) And “moderato” is obviously somewhere in the middle. And “andante” is the next one down, so that must be slow, right? (But then what happens when you get to adagio and largo and lento and grave?)

Well, andante is often translated by musicians as “at a walking pace”. Which is slow compared to someone who’s running. But fast compared to someone sitting on the sofa. Literally, it just means “going”. Not slow, not fast, just in motion. And different people interpret this differently. When Beethoven writes “andante”, it’s only a couple of notches below allegro. (He even takes pains to spell out that “more andante” means to go faster, not slower.) When Wagner writes “andante”, he’s thinking of something much more stately. Brahms usually sits somewhere in the middle, in my opinion.

The other part of my theory is that Brahms’s music would have been played faster in his lifetime. After all, he did live in Vienna at the same time as Johann Strauss. Waltzes, and dances in general, are never far away in this music. But since Brahms died and became even more famous, he got labelled as a Great Composer who wrote Very Serious music. And if it’s very serious, it can’t be played fast, it just wouldn’t be respectful, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of those slow, rich, lush recordings of Brahms. It’s such wonderful music, sometimes it’s nice to linger over it. And sometimes it’s nice to put a different spin on it. And it’s wonderful that classical music allows so many different interpretations.

What actually happened with these pieces is that I learned them from the sheet music alone, played them in a way that felt natural to me, and afterwards listened to recordings and found that my interpretation was more “original” that I’d realised. I wasn’t trying to be radical here. Just going with the flow, in more than one sense. I hope you enjoy comparing my version with all the other slower and faster versions. These pieces are worth listening to more than once!