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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [44:55]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [39:48]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [39:12]
CD 3
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) [42:19]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 29 October-14 November 2008, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 2672542 [44:55 + 79:16 + 42:19] 
Experience Classicsonline

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 Simon Rattle

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.

Most 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). 

I 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 Grammophon 4577062. 

I 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. 

The 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 times.”. 

Only 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. 

Brahms 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. 

I 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. 

Brahms 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’. 

The 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. 

Six 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’. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

A 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. 

The 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. 

Rattle’s urgently 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.

Michael Cookson

see also review by John Quinn (September 2009 Recording of the Month)



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