Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Brahms chez Wittgenstein

The Musiksalon in the (razed) Palais Wittgenstein, 1910
Haus Wittgenstein, 22/04/2012

Allan Janik in conversation with Irene Suchy


Daniel Ottensamer, clarinet and Christoph Traxler, piano

Brahms: Sonata for clarinet and piano in E flat major, op. 120 no. 2/I

Brahms: Sonata for clarinet and piano in F minor, op. 120 no. 1/III

Weber: Grand Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano in E flat major, op. 48/III

Walking through the metal frame doors to sit in the salon that logic designed and encounter Brahms, whose own formal perfection can so often seem, Schoenberg’s ‘musical prose’ notwithstanding, as expressively mute as this room, and valued in my business for proving the ‘rightness’ of analytical techniques (if the fetishization of the Brahms of the Harmonielehre is anything to go by); and in performance, to hear the restricted voice of that rigour concealed so credibly, with the stifling historicism banished and the German master’s lyrical gift somehow abstracted; and then be brought to the Vienna School and made to reflect if Brahms really is as much their composer as Wittgenstein is their philosopher, only to consider that other fin-de-siècle master of motivic structuring, Wolf, and dwell on how inscrutable and reductively resistant his generative impulse is, and how accounting for all his motivic relationships would be just be the start, leaving the ever-present problem note, particularly in his Lieder, which is structurally and expressively essential and yet threatens to challenge the whole piece or at least one’s analytical conception of it; and, finally, some mind-wandering by association over to the slippery slope of Wittgenstein and Wolf gratuitously insulting Brahms (Wolf: ‘The art of composing without ideas has found its worthy representative’, Wittgenstein: ‘I can begin to hear the noise of machinery’)… Hmm, this was not a good afternoon for my Brahms problem.

For those without said problem there was much to admire about Daniel Ottensamer’s articulate playing: plenty of flair here, and the flowing line that makes everything in Brahms sound so natural. His Weber was rather the showstopper too. The pianist, Christoph Traxler, isn’t as far along in his career as Ottensamer but impressed with prize-winning accompanying – technically effortless, superb touch, and sensitive and complementary to Ottensamer while coming sparklingly to the fore at all the right moments – and is a name to watch out for. These two have released a CD of this programme which deserves a plug.

The musical Umrahmung was quite clever as Wittgenstein was a clarinettist and Brahms a regular at the family’s Musiksalon over at the Palais Wittgenstein (formerly on the Alleegasse, now Argentinierstraße). A family story has it that Brahms came round to dinner one evening and Ludwig’s socially awkward sister Hermine was so on edge she retired to spend the evening vomiting into a lavatory. But without mentioning this or the quotations above Wittgenstein authority Allan Janik downplayed the Brahms connection and, more generally, the place of music in Wittgenstein’s thought. Janik is the co-author of Wittgenstein’s Vienna, a fin-de-siècle Wien standard reference work and model for similar studies (including, in the musicological domain, James Wright’s Schoenberg, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle and Nicholas Cook’s The Schenker Project), and for those who know this book and a few of his articles this Gespräch, pitched for a general audience, didn’t contain much of interest. There were a couple of anecdotes I hadn’t heard and some observations about Wittgenstein’s reading habits, but his delivery was stream-of-consciousness and the way he ignored or contradicted moderator Irene Suchy suggested that the two weren’t on the same page. Suchy is actually a seasoned moderator and has some wissenschaftliche Tätigkeit on the side, including on Wittgenstein, so for her to hinder this discussion was disappointing.

Next up in this Haus Wittgenstein series: Clemens Hellsberg, chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, and Albena Danailova, its first female concertmaster, on the topic of the VPO and WOMEN. Details here.

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