Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Brad Mehldau: Brahms, Interpretation & Improvisation

The aching beauty of the Adagio movement in Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet always gets me. It’s a sweet ache that hits you in the stomach, like the first sip of a good single malt after coming inside from a cold November evening. You breathe in, riding the dull pain, and the music rewards you soon enough, moving outward from the gut, crackling into goose flesh. The clarinet hovers closely around the movement of the strings, and their harmony nestles its melody. The wordless narrative that the music spins for me is unique to late Brahms. There is an incredible sadness and regret over something or someone that is unattainable. This object of beauty cannot be experienced directly, but the very gap between it and its beholder (Brahms/us) is what produces such a lucid rendering. If the Gypsy middle section of the movement is an evocation of sensuality, its carnal desire lacks consummation, and the clarinet’s song grasps at empty air in eerie, disembodied lust.

There is nothing remotely like hope in this music, and that’s precisely what gives it its humanity. Its deep resignation rings true and offers a kind of empathy. In one of those magic tricks of art, the music itself takes on the role of another subject alongside the listener, providing a consoling, human presence. Indeed, we almost forget that the very same music is the object, after all-the bewitching, unattainable one. Seducing us with a far-away vision, while simultaneously pacifying us in our unrequited desire, Brahms’ music here is erotic and sanctified all at once. Is this what Marvin had in mind with “Sexual Healing”?

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published