If I had to pick a favorite symphony—and that would be difficult to do as I love so many—then it would have to be Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. Though he completed it in 1876 at the age of 43, he had been working on it for something like 21 years. He was a consummate perfectionist, and it shows.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra performed this extraordinary work this past weekend as the second half of a really fine program featuring Alban Gerhardt playing the Walton Cello Concerto, and Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide. We are so very fortunate to have an orchestra of this caliber in southern Wisconsin, and music director John DeMain is a treasure. I am a season subscriber, of course, and attend all the concerts except for the Christmas program in December.
I cannot get through a performance of the Brahms First Symphony without being moved to tears, and Sunday’s excellent performance by the MSO was no exception. The final section of the second movement (Andante sostenuto) features an incredibly beautiful violin solo, gorgeously played by concertmaster Naha Greenholtz. The fourth and final movement (Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio — Più allegro) is pure ecstasy. Just when you think the symphony is drawing to a conclusion, it launches into another, even more remarkable, section. And that happens more than once. The modulating transition to the coda in measures 367-390 (about 15:42 to 16:24 into the movement, two minutes before the end) for me is one of the most exciting sections of the entire work.
I once asked my friend and accomplished horn player John Wunderlin—who is similarly deeply moved by orchestral music—how he keeps from choking up during the most moving passages he plays. “Fear of messing up” he said, half jokingly and half serious. Part of the discipline that any professional musician must have is maintaining composure during even the most moving and beautiful sections. I don’t think I could do it. But I did once see a teary-eyed violinist in the orchestra at the conclusion of a work. Want to know what that work was? It was the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms.