Thursday 23 November 2017

James Last . . . and the blast from the past

Way back in the dim and distant, when I was still chasing rainbows to the beat of the disco, I came across a particularly beautiful piece of music. Something classical, but it appealed to me then because it included a rhythm section.

It's probably appropriate, on All-Ireland Football Final weekend, that I'm remembering James Last, the man behind the theme of The Sunday Game on RTÉ Television. He was the one who brought to my attention the beautiful waltz that is the third movement of the Third Symphony by Johannes Brahms.

Brahms (1833 to 1897) was one of the heavyweights of the Romantic era. He was already established in his early 20s. His friend and adviser Robert Schumann then sang his praises in a magazine article with the title "New Paths". Schumann thought he was a genius, the true heir to the tradition of Haydn and Beethoven, whose nine symphonies stand out as the benchmark for the form.

"He [Brahms] has come," Schumann enthused, "a youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard." Brahms was to comment: "You have no idea how it is for the likes of us to feel the tread of a giant like [Beethoven] behind us!"

His First Symphony was over 20 years in the making.

His patience paid off. The premiere, in 1876, was a huge success. It was so good, said the great conductor Hans von Bülow, it could have been Beethoven's Tenth.

Within 12 months, Brahms had written a second. After that, he took a break from the rigours of symphony writing. Six years passed before he began to orchestrate his Third.

Of the four that Brahms would ultimately compose, this one holds the greatest appeal for me, not least because of the delights of its 'Third Movement'. It begins with a huge flourish and immediately you're charging into the music. 'Movement Two' is an Andante, with the gentler feel of a folk song. Both it and the 'Third Movement' have a much more intimate quality than the bold grandeur of the opening section.

That 'Third Movement', the one James Last and his big band brought to my attention all those years ago, is wistful, full of melancholic charm, emphasised by the prominence of the cello and the clarinet, two instruments particularly suited to imparting just that.

It is, in the words of a contemporary critic, "artistically the most perfect . . . equal to the best of Brahms' works a feast for the music lover and musician".

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

Irish Independent

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