“Schoenberg was right when he talked about Brahms the progressive.
But yet he was really a classicist. And his aim was to bring the
classic symphonic form really into the Romantic era.” Sir
In the 1970s I would attend Hallé Orchestra concerts
in their then home at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. Conductor James Loughran had recorded
the Brahms symphonies on the Classics for Pleasure label and
would often include a Brahms symphony in his Hallé programmes.
This was my introduction to the music of Brahms and what an
appealing place it was to start. I recall saying in those
days that I preferred the Brahms symphonies to those of Beethoven.
conductors worth their salt have conducted a complete cycle
of the Brahms symphonies and I have accumulated several of
them in my collection. My benchmark is the evergreen set from
Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia. These aristocratic performances
of power and expression were recorded with the great producer
Walter Legge at his favoured recording venue, London’s Kingsway
Hall in 1956/57 (EMI Classics 5627422 - c/w ‘Haydn’ Variations;
Alto Rhapsody with Christa Ludwig, mezzo; Academic Festival
and Tragic Overtures). The digitally remastered sound is quite
superb. With impeccable credentials Klemperer is a marvellous
and experienced Brahmsian who made a studio recording of the
Brahms first symphony with the Staatskapelle Berlin as early
as 1928. In addition I cannot commend enough Klemperer’s recording
of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem with the Philharmonia
Chorus and Orchestra – also 1961. This is another Klemperer
collaboration with Walter Legge again from the Kingsway Hall
(EMI Classics 5669032).
often play the sterling performances of the symphonies 1-3
conducted by Eugen Jochum with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
in the Kingsway Hall, London in 1956 on EMI Classics 5695152.
Re-mastered at Abbey Road studios, Jochum’s sound
is excellent too. For an accompanying version of the fourth
symphony I would add Carlos Kleiber’s commanding reading:
1980 Musikverein, Vienna with the
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra digitally recorded on Deutsche
have yet to hear the first three symphonies from period instrument
specialist John Eliot Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et
Romantique on the Soli Deo Gloria label. At the time of writing
the symphony No. 3, which is Gardiner’s third instalment in
the series, has just been released on SDG704. If Gardiner’s
1990 London account of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem with the Monteverdi
Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on Philips
4321402 is anything to go by the Brahms symphonies should
certainly be worth hearing.
The Berlin Philharmonic has recorded the Brahms symphonies
numerous times under different conductors and where Karajan
is concerned several times. Now after rather a long wait under
the stewardship of Sir Simon Rattle I am thankful that they
have at last recorded the
Four which I note were
made at single concert performances with some additional patching.
Brahms symphonies are undoubtedly music that lies right at
the very heart of the tradition of this great orchestra. Sir
Simon explains “Brahms is so much the centre of this orchestra’s
sound and style of playing. Brahms and Wagner together - that
was what the orchestra began with. And of course, the works
were newly minted when the orchestra was coming to birth.
And in the first three years of the orchestra’s history, they
played all of them and the third particularly; many, many
last week as part of the ‘Musikfest Berlin 09’ I took the opportunity to hear the Berlin Philharmonic
under Simon Rattle at the Philharmonie in Berlin. Although
performing Haydn’s oratorio ‘The Seasons’ and
not Brahms I can report playing of supreme quality; frequently
glorious and often breathtaking. Contrary to what we often
read in the press the relationship between conductor and the
Berlin players seems sincere, strong and dynamic. It was against
this background that I eagerly received this three disc set.
The attraction of this cycle from an orchestra that I consider
the finest in the world, is an alluring and a heady one. Not
surprisingly a massive marketing campaign is well underway
for what is probably the most significant event in the world
of recorded music this year. Last week, walking past the well-known
Dussmann music store in Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse the Brahms/Rattle promotion took
centre-stage in the window display. Rattle interviews proliferate
in the music magazines too.
was aware that by writing symphonies he was invading the territory
ruled by Beethoven. In fact Brahms had written to Hermann
Levi that he could feel the presence of Beethoven marching
behind him. Many Brahms supporters, notably Eduard Hanslick,
were happy to acknowledge the close relationship of the Symphony
No. 1 to the music of Beethoven. Hans von Bülow went
further referring to the C minor symphony as, ‘Beethoven’s
tenth’. Brahms was 43 and at the height of his maturity when
his First Symphony was produced. The gestation period
had in fact been long with sketches for the score dating back
some twenty years. The premiere in November 1876 given in
the great hall of Karlsruhe Museum under Otto Dessoff was
a surprise to many who expected Brahms to have chosen his
home city of Vienna for the performance.
was convinced by the solemn and heavy thuds of the threatening
drums that open the first movement Un poco sostenuto -
Allegro. A seeming edit was however detectable at 0:26.
A feature is the beautiful oboe playing of the rising motif
at 2:15. Throughout this movement a confident Rattle successfully
provides generous quantities of beauty and menace. In truth
no one has managed to deliver an opening of such raw power
approaching that of Klemperer. There is a burnished autumnal
countryside feel to the E major Andante sostenuto.
One could imagine conducting the orchestra at the edge of
an eerily tranquil and shadowy forest whilst anticipating
the ominous onset of inclement weather. I was struck by how
much the rising melody carried by the solo violin at 6:08 reminded me of a section in Brahms’s Violin Concerto.
Glorious lyrical melodies abound in the short Un poco allegretto
e grazioso right from the swaying opening measures. Here
is Brahms adopting a manner reminiscent of Mendelssohn. This
is fresh music of the great outdoors evocative of cool early
morning dew over a backdrop of wonderful Alpine scenery. Rattle
provides a sense of intense activity in the closing Adagio
- Allegro non troppo ma con brio as if lying on a verdant
grassy bank watching the tones and shapes of a changing sky.
completed his Symphony No. 2 in 1877. This was
a work produced quickly - mainly during a summer holiday in
Pörtschach on Wörthersee, a favourite place of Brahms for
several years. It’s in Carinthia - the
southernmost region of Austria. A modest Brahms wrote to a friend, "I don't
know whether I have a pretty symphony. I must inquire of learned
persons!" This time Brahms did have the symphony
premiered in Vienna with Hans
Richter conducting the Philharmonic in December 1877. The
score has occasionally been dubbed Brahms’ ‘Pastoral’ or occasionally
the ‘Pörtschach symphony’.
opening Allegro non troppo evinces restrained joy with
an undercurrent of dark foreboding. This felt like a picture
of a cool mountain lake in a deep valley with dense tree-lined
slopes. This is dramatic music hewn from granite tinged with
a beautiful soft edge. Permeated with low strings the sober
quality is tinted with shades of solemnity. With playing of
sensitivity and grace one feels that Maestro Rattle is in
total control. Relatively short in length and employing only
strings, woodwind and three horns the movement marked Allegretto
grazioso (Quasi Andantino) is simple yet highly
effective. It conveys a warm and welcoming pastoral quality.
I loved the uncomplicated yet elegant oboe introduction over
pizzicato cellos and the way the motif recurs. At 1.08 the
sudden and short-lived Presto ma non assai section
comes as rather a surprise only to return at 2:54. Throughout, this scrambling section felt I was running
for shelter from a sudden and heavy shower. With assurance
Rattle floats the movement to a graceful conclusion. The joyful
Finale marked Allegro con spirito abounds in
Haydnesque impudence and luminosity. At 5:56
I loved how the drums and trombones burst impressively on
the scene. From around 8:20
to the conclusion the jubilant and awesome power that Brahms
has held in reserve is unleashed.
years elapsed before Brahms started his Symphony No.
3 composed chiefly in the summer of 1883 at the southwest
German spa town of Wiesbaden. That
same year the premiere was given in December 1883 at a Vienna
Philharmonic concert under Hans Richter who was to describe
the score as ‘Brahms’s Eroica’.
first movement Allegro con brio opens with majestic
measures - a heady mixture of power and drama. Again an Alpine
vista is easily imagined as one can feel the frosty chill
of winter in the air. The quieter more reflective passages
evoke skating on the flat expenses of an ice-covered lake.
In the Andante the bucolic nature of the writing is
typically lucid and irresistibly interpreted by Rattle. The
heart-rending C minor main theme in the Poco Allegretto
has a feather-light quality. But for the pizzicato
notes on the double-basses that serve as an anchor it feels
as if the music would just float away. Rattle provides a strong
sense of urgency and determination in the colourful concluding
Allegro. A feeling of raw power resonates with ingenious
mood changes that take the listener by surprise.
Symphony No. 4 was worked on at the Austrian
summer resort of Mürzzuschlag in 1884 and 1885. Hans von Bülow,
who had conducted a rehearsal of the score, enthused that
the symphony was, “… stupendous, quite original, individual,
and rock-like. Incomparable strength from start to finish.”
The E minor symphony was well received at its October 1885
premiere with Brahms himself conducting the court orchestra
of the Meiningen Court Theatre. Its
esteem has endured and remains on many lists as Brahms’s most
popular symphony. Evidently Walter Niemann was responsible
for referring to the symphony as Brahms’s ‘Elegiac’ symphony.
mood of warm serenity and joy suffuse the swaying opening
Allegro non troppo. I was reminded of the verse, “perfectly
cultivated earth. Honey of dawn, sun in bloom” from the
poem Glimmer by Paul Éluard (1895-1952). The E major
Andante moderato is a dreamscape attaining beguiling
heights of fantasy and grandeur. I loved the ebullience and
power of the Scherzo as Rattle propels the music forward
with majestic strides. The final movement marked Allegro
energico e passionate is a heroic drama constructed out
of a theme and variations in the form of a passacaglia.
Here Brahms provides contrasts of the broadest imagination
and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is simply electrifying.
I especially enjoyed the lovely and moving passage for solo
flute at 3:19-4:02 and the volcanic hammer-blows from 7:40.
Rattle recording was made in October and November in 2008
during live concerts in the Philharmonie in Berlin. There is no audience noise to speak of and I found
the clear, slightly warm and well balanced sound highly impressive.
The helpful essay in the booklet is well written too.
spontaneous performances epitomise Romantic power of immense intensity.
For many years I have been looking for a Brahms cycle to compete
with Klemperer’s Olympian 1956/57 versions. With Rattle’s new
set I have found it.
see also review
by John Quinn (September 2009
Recording of the Month)