For his latest release, Joshua Bell joins with longtime musical partners Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk to rediscover Brahms and unearth a Schumann rarity
Text by Thomas May
Images by Shervin Lainez
“Humanity . . . must in the long run regain its health through the true and great works Brahms produces,” wrote Clara Schumann in her diary in January 1889. To which cellist Steven Isserlis adds “Brahms—we need you!” to complete a Tweet he shared just a few days after wrapping up a recording project in May with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. The release, For the Love of Brahms, contains the Double Concerto, Op. 102, and the First Piano Trio, along with the slow movement of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto, and is being released in September by Sony.
Brahms has been, without question, a reliable restorative for countless music lovers. But his music is hardly underrepresented in the catalogue. What was the inspiration behind undertaking this project?
It’s exhausting to play and conduct. There are no breaks. You have to be in good shape!
“For me personally, a recording is ultimately a way of documenting, of preserving works that have been important in my life for my grandchildren, for posterity,” Joshua Bell tells me when I interview him in May, shortly after his historic visit to Cuba on a US government cultural mission (see sidebar on p. 30). “That’s in the back of my mind whenever I decide to make any recording. You’ve put so much thought and energy into these pieces over the years. With the Brahms in particular, recording is a way to preserve that, and it’s also a representation of musical friendship.”
Friendship is indeed the bond that links together the choices of repertoire here, as well as the dream team of performers who join together to interpret them. Brahms’ friendships with the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim and with Robert and Clara Schumann underscore the creation of these works. At the same time, Bell was inspired to reflect on several of his most significant musical friendships.
It was almost 30 years ago that Bell (then 19 and five years into the launch of his public career) met Steven Isserlis at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, where they played chamber music together. That encounter in 1987 inaugurated a longstanding friendship with the British cellist, Bell’s senior by a decade. Spoleto is also where, in 2004, the violinist first got to know fellow Indiana University alum Jeremy Denk. Over the years he has performed widely all across the globe with both colleagues.
Bell’s new recording documents another significant friendship as well: since 2011 he has served as music director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an ensemble he describes as “my musical family.” His position with ASMF enabled Bell to schedule a tour with Isserlis. For its centerpiece he programmed the final orchestral work of Brahms: the Double Concerto in A minor for violin and cello from 1887. The work was intended in part as a gesture of reconciliation with Joachim, from whom Brahms had become estranged by taking the side of the violinist’s wife during a marital dispute.
“Brahms and Joachim were such musical idealists. Even when they weren’t talking to each other, Joachim was still playing his music,” says Isserlis in a phone interview from his home in London. “You can’t really play that piece without having that feeling of reconciliation that brought them back together. Josh and I have played the Double Concerto fairly often over the years, but I think both of us really fell in love with the work this time. It struck me more powerfully this time. We recorded it at the ninth performance on our tour and then did a patch session after the tenth.”
Brahms and Joachim were such musical idealists. Even when they weren’t talking to each other, Joachim was still playing [Brahms’] music
The backstory of a ruptured and repaired friendship was very much on their minds, recalls Bell. “Over the years Steven and I have had terrible arguments. Like anyone you’re very close with, we’ve been through all kinds of stuff. The piece resonates on so many levels with our friendship.”
Playing the dual roles of conductor and violin soloist, adds Bell, pushed the interpretation more in the direction of chamber music. “I’ve been doing more and more conducting without the violin, but I really love conducting and playing in concertos. Somehow the process is more organic and seamless. The academy’s approach really is like chamber music. Instead of a baton, I use my arms, sometimes my bow. When I’m playing, I can just wiggle my hips or use my elbow, even my eyebrows—subtle gestures the players respond to. They’re not watching a stick but are listening to each other and playing. But it’s exhausting to play and conduct. There are no breaks. You have to be in good shape!”
For the tour that was the spur for their recording, Bell decided to program a discovery Isserlis had introduced to him: a version of the slow movement of Schumann’s late-period Violin Concerto that Benjamin Britten prepared in 1958. Adding a seven-bar coda of his own, Britten fashioned the movement as a stand-alone elegy for the legendary horn player Dennis Brain. Yehudi Menuhin, who played a leading role in the rediscovery of Schumann’s unpublished Violin Concerto, was chosen as the soloist for the premiere.
It was in fact for Joachim that Schumann originally wrote the concerto more than a century before, just around the time he met the young Brahms and became his champion. Joachim, however, declined to perform the work in public, and even Brahms and Clara came to associate the Violin Concerto with Schumann’s tragic mental decline (he was confined to a sanatorium within months of completing it). It remained unpublished long after Schumann’s death—save for a melody from the slow movement, which Brahms included as his “last musical thought” in the complete Schumann edition he edited. “I came across the Schumann by chance in a catalogue of Britten’s works,” Isserlis explains, who has had the composer on his mind while working on his latest book, Robert Schumann’s Advice for Young Musicians. Just published this month by Faber, it’s an English translation of a Schumann text that originally appeared in 1848, supplemented with commentary by the cellist. “Britten called his version ‘Schumann’s Elegy for Violin and Orchestra’ and wrote it for Yehudi Menuhin, adding a bit of his own music at the end. It was only played once and never recorded before.” Isserlis convinced Bell to learn the piece “and he ended up falling in love with it.”
Another unusual feature of their new recording is the selection of chamber music by Brahms that fills out the album. While the Double Concerto and the Schumann Elegy were recorded in live performance during the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields tour early this year (with some follow-up work in the studio), the Brahms Trio was captured entirely in the studio.
Familiar as it is, the Trio in B major, Op. 8, for piano, violin, and cello is nearly always encountered in the much later revised version Brahms made in 1889 (using the same opus number), for which he restructured and even recomposed substantial portions of the score. Bell, Isserlis, and Denk wanted to record the lengthier original version, a product of the fateful year of 1854, when Brahms was suddenly deprived of the friendship and advice of his mentor Robert Schumann and left to provide emotional support to the pregnant Clara. Schumann’s suicide attempt and subsequent confinement in an institution that year are part of the context in which the young Brahms created what many regard as his first full-fledged masterpiece.
“It’s fascinating to see the two versions side by side,” Jeremy Denk tells me a few days after he recorded the Opus 8 with Bell and Isserlis. “Late Brahms comes to value restraint and architecture and maybe even craftsmanship over expression. But what we’ve recorded is young Brahms, which is hyperromantic and has this hopeless passion for Clara Schumann written into it.” As an example he points to the prominent quotation of a song from Beethoven’s cycle To the Distant Beloved (which Schumann himself had used as a coded communication with Clara). “Steven was always making us conscious of the musical quotes in the Trio that are references to Clara.” Overall, Denk concludes, “the later version behaves like we expect a Romantic piano trio to behave, while this one is more like a Romantic poem that has wild digressions. I think later on Brahms must have wanted to conceal some of this, to clear up the wildness. We’re used to dealing with pieces that are accomplished and revised. But it’s great to hear a piece that is in the process of forming itself in the composer’s mind. I hope this recording gives a sense of what it’s like to enter the mind of a young genius.”
“Even though I love the more polished later version, I find the 1854 Trio the more touching of the two,” Isserlis confesses. “There are weak spots, of course, but it’s so raw and honest. And I like the idea of pairing Brahms’s first published chamber work with his last orchestral piece, both of which are filled with secret messages.”
Bell says he’s always been intrigued by the presence of personal ties in the Op. 8 Trio. “It seems to be very much about Brahms’ friendship with Schumann and his love for Clara. And it’s nice to play pieces with people you know well and care about. Steven and Jeremy are probably my most frequent chamber-music collaborators.”
Although Bell and Isserlis had played the Trio together with other pianists on previous occasions, this marks their first time performing it with Denk at the keyboard. To prepare for the recording, they played it in a private concert at Bell’s home in New York and then scheduled two full days for the recording sessions. “It’s a real luxury when you haven’t got an orchestra clock ticking away,” notes Isserlis. With such forceful musical personalities joining to interpret a major score for the first time together, how did the chemistry work out? “When you have people with very strong opinions, there’s always some sort of argument going on,” says Isserlis.
“You need those arguments in chamber music. But we’ve all got the same basic values. We wouldn’t have agreed to record a piece had we known we weren’t all basically on the same wavelength.”
Denk contributes a characteristic meta-analysis of what each player brings to the table: “Steven loves to argue—but it’s in good humor—and is more obsessed with structure, Josh with the flow of the narrative. I love both structure and narrative and might be in the middle, moderating from this black monster with its keys. We know each other’s foibles and tendencies, and have all chosen to play with each other over a long period of time.”
With the final recording session of the Opus 8 Trio behind him, Isserlis broadcast another Tweet to mark the project’s completion: “Always mixed emotions at the end of a recording: relief (it’s over!); doubt (is it really OK?); panic (it’s out of my hands!); exhaustion.”
Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. Along with essays regularly commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and Opera, the Juilliard School, and other leading institutions, he is a critic for the Seattle Times and Musical America and blogs about the arts at memeteria.com.
Joshua Bell in Cuba
From April 18–21, 2016, shortly after President Barack Obama became the first American president to visit Cuba since the Calvin Coolidge administration, Joshua Bell took part in a US government–sponsored cultural delegation to Cuba to build on that visit and the effort to normalize relations.
He was part of a team of fellow artists that included such figures as Smokey Robinson, Dave Matthews, Lourdes Lopez, Martha Clarke, John Guare, and Kal Penn. “Cuba is a place I’ve always wanted to visit but wasn’t [allowed] to travel to,” says Bell. “So when I was asked by the White House, there was no question that I wanted to participate. It turned out to be a memorable three days, making friends with Smokey Robinson and Dave Matthews.”
Recalling how much he enjoyed previous collaborations with the Afro-Caribbean group Tiempo Libre, Bell was especially eager to sample the current musical scene in Cuba.
“I stayed in Havana and didn’t travel anywhere else on the island, but I got to mingle with some Cuban musicians and met some great people. We played Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with a young college-age orchestra.
“I was surprised by how good they were, how they really got into the piece. One of the best parts of my job as a musician is to travel and to get to meet amazing people.”