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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 4 in E minor op.98 [42:08]
Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Günther Herbig
no rec. info, pub. 1982
BERLIN CLASSICS 0149192BC [42:08]
Experience Classicsonline

“Berlin Classics Basics” is the title of this series. If you’re a new collector building up your basics then the iron-and-steel construction depicted on the cover and the total absence of notes about the composer and the music, let alone the conductor and orchestra, is a reminder that the former German Democratic Republic took a pretty Spartan view of what constituted its citizens’ basic needs. And if it’s economy you’re after, most records of this symphony have something extra, quite often the entire Third Symphony.
Mature collectors will be happy to accept this as a reminder that, in the faltering last years of one of Eastern Europe’s greyest regimes, the music-making was of a high standard and Günther Herbig was one of those who ensured that it was so. With strong but unspectacular sound and unvarnished yet cohesive playing, this is a forthright statement of Brahmsian basics.
Notoriously, Brahms himself walked out of a performance of one of his symphonies under Hans Richter because the pulse was too rigid. Herbig’s rendering of the “Andante moderato” shows that steadiness does not have to mean rigidity. At 11:38 he is not Boult-fast (9:56) or even Klemperer-fast (10:19), but nor is his a Janowski-plod (12:37). A metronome would probably reveal that there is little tempo variation from beginning to end, yet the long arching phrasing carries the ear over the bar-lines. The balance between deep inner expression and onward surge is finely judged. Similarly, in the finale, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the opening variations all made to go at such a precisely even tempo, but the effect is again not rigid. Herbig really makes each one grow out of the other.
In between these comes a trenchant scherzo, energetic but with time for the more graceful moments. The first movement has both onward impetus and imposing grandeur. Other performances may be more tragic, impassioned, heroic or what you will. This one has an impressive ring of truth.
Günther Herbig was born in 1931 at Ustí nad Labem (now in the Czech Republic) and studied with Abendroth in Weimar. In the early sixties he studied further with Scherchen, (Arvid) Jansons and Karajan. He was assistant to Kurt Sanderling with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra from 1966 to 1972, when he succeeded Kurt Masur as chief conductor and artistic director of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra. He was the natural person to succeed Sanderling on his retirement from the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in 1977 but fairly soon left them to make his career in the west. Apart from a brief spell with the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester he has been mainly based in the United States (Dallas, Detroit) and Canada (Toronto). Now in his later seventies, as far as I can tell from the not always concordant information in internet, he no longer holds a permanent position but still makes frequent guest appearances. He set down all four Brahms symphonies during his tenure with the Berlin Symphony; possibly it would have been more imaginative of Berlin Classics to reissue them as a set, hopefully not spread over four CDs. On the strength of this example it would be rewarding.
I must say that I have not particularly investigated Herbig’s art and if this disc had been played to me blind I think I might have suggested Sanderling as the conductor. By this I do not mean to imply that his years as Sanderling’s assistant made him a Sanderling clone. Rather, that he shares Sanderling’s predilection for a big-boned, stern but impassioned approach. Certainly, if you fancy the sort of performance Klemperer might have been expected to give – the ones he really did give were rather different – then you should find this very satisfying.
Christopher Howell   


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