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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]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. in concert, 29 October–14 December 2008, Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 2672542 [3 CDs: 44:55 + 79:16 + 42:19]
Experience Classicsonline

Sir Simon Rattle’s exploration of the standard Austro-German symphonic repertoire on CD in recent years has met with mixed responses. I was enthusiastic when I reviewed his set of Haydn symphonies a couple of years ago though I couldn’t be quite as welcoming to his recording of Bruckner’s Fourth, which I reviewed in the same year, and which I regarded as “work in progress”. He’s already set down a complete Beethoven symphony cycle, this time with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Colin Anderson’s review contained quite a number of reservations. Mark Bridle’s appraisal was more positive overall and, revisiting it after completing my listening to this new Brahms cycle, one sentence in his review particularly caught my eye. Early on Mark wrote: “At times Rattle’s new set strikes me as an impulsive cycle, at others one which is deeply considered and intellectually thought through.” For what it’s worth, my own reaction to the Beethoven cycle, when I acquired it, was that whilst I didn’t agree with every interpretative decision made by Rattle – scarcely surprising over nine symphonies! – I found much more to enjoy and welcome than to dislike. As for his approach to Brahms, well, Jonathan Woolf was generally complimentary about Rattle’s account of Ein deutches Requiem, a recording which has so far eluded my attentions.

I mention all this because, while Rattle is widely admired for his work in twentieth-century repertoire and contemporary music – on much of which he cut his conducting teeth – he seems to have approached the standard repertoire more slowly during his career. To judge by what I’ve heard and also by critiques that I’ve read, his progress through this standard repertoire hasn’t always been even. I see nothing wrong with that, however: it’s ludicrous to expect perfection from any performing artist every time. Over the years I’ve found much more to enjoy than to criticise in Rattle’s conducting so I approached this Brahms cycle with keen anticipation.

Mind you, I was slightly perturbed by the blurb on the back of the jewel case, part of which reads thus: “With the combination of Sir Simon Rattle’s vision and iconoclastic approach [my italics] and the orchestra’s remarkable technique and unique sound, these performances mark a new milestone in the history of Brahms recordings.” That’s a huge claim to make when one considers the many distinguished recordings of individual Brahms symphonies and complete cycles that have graced the catalogue over the years. One thing that can be said straightaway is that the playing itself is consistently superb. In this respect Rattle is as well served here as he was by the Wiener Philharmoniker in his Beethoven cycle. But is the cycle “iconoclastic”? Momentarily I feared this comment might presage an interventionist set of performances in which points were made for their own sake. Thankfully Rattle has far too much musical and intellectual integrity and – and I mean this as a compliment – there is nothing in these performances that will frighten the horses. In fact, I suspect the EMI blurb writer hadn’t actually heard the recordings!

When auditioning a Brahms cycle I very often start with the Second Symphony, for no better reason than the fact that it’s the one I love the most. So I began with Rattle’s traversal of this wonderful work. The performance begins convincingly and continues in that vein. The basic pulse in I is pleasingly relaxed but flowing. I was a little surprised – and disappointed – that Rattle doesn’t make the exposition repeat; these pages are always worth hearing twice. There’s a consistent attention to detail, sometimes with surprising results. Thus, at bar 201 in this movement (5:46) the strings play right through their crotchets. Many conductors separate the notes here to underscore the greater urgency in the music but there’s nothing in the score to suggest that the crotchets shouldn’t be given their full value. Rattle doesn’t sacrifice any urgency by doing what’s in the score – and nothing more. A few minutes later, at cue G, Rattle is among those who don’t make the trombones sound too black. His overall interpretation of the movement is lyrical and so he seems to choose not to bring out the darker side to the music at this point. The crucial horn solo just after cue M (12:48) is excellently played – and perfectly placed within the overall texture – and the coda that follows is beautifully balanced.

Rattle keeps the music on the move in II while still allowing the right amount of space for phrasing. At cue C, where the music becomes more urgent while retaining the same basic pulse, Rattle injects fire into the playing. He and his magnificent orchestra bring out the charm in III. The presto passages are light on their feet and, as a whole, the reading is affectionate. I like the suppressed energy at the very start of IV. At cue A (0:30) the music explodes joyously into life. Thereafter the playing is often exuberant, with some splendid wind solos. Around cue L Rattle, ever a master of contrast, ensures that the pp markings are truly observed so that when the jubilant mood returns a few moments later it really counts. The final pages (from 8:26) are suitably exultant. Overall, this is a convincing and keenly observed performance of the Second Symphony.

Moving backwards, as it were, to the First Symphony, the introduction to I is powerful and just spacious enough. The main allegro bounds along, thanks to a fine rhythmic impulse. At cue D Rattle makes the unmarked but fairly traditional broadening of the tempo. Indeed, there are quite a number of such occasions in the cycle but whenever they occur they seem to me to be fully justified both by musical logic and respectable performance tradition and precedent. The exposition repeat is not taken. Rattle leads a trenchant, strong reading of this fine movement.

Near the start of II the principal oboist treats us to a lovely solo (1:14) and follows this up with more delectable playing further on in the movement. Indeed this movement features some very fine work from all the wind principals. The performance of this movement is very fine indeed and as it draws to a close the duet between the principal violin and horn (from 6:08) is beautifully sung. After an engaging and fluent traversal of III Rattle achieves a fine degree of suspense in the introduction to the finale, which he takes broadly and shapes with care. However, although for the most part I relish his insistence on dynamics the stringendo string pizzicati half a dozen bars into the movement are surely too much of a good thing. Actually, they’re only marked p but here they sound to be played ppp and the result is inaudibility for the first couple of bars of this passage. The same happens when Brahms repeats the device a few bars later. There’s a fine horn solo but oddly, given his scrupulous attention to detail, Rattle doesn’t seem to make anything of the dynamic hairpins in this solo. In a performance that I reviewed just recently Klaus Tennstedt showed how effective it can be when the player is encouraged to make something of these markings. When the ‘Big Tune’ arrives (4:45) the Berliners deliver it marvellously and when the animato is reached at cue D (5:44) the music surges forward powerfully. Rattle leads a thrusting performance of the main allegro, which gains in power as it proceeds. The Pił Allegro at bar 391 goes off like a rocket (15:45) and I was delighted that Rattle doesn’t sacrifice momentum by milking the chorale at bar 407. It’s majestic enough here without an egregious rhetorical slowdown. Like the performance of the Second I’d count this version of the First a conspicuous success.

The opening of the Third Symphony must be one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire to launch. On paper it looks deceptively simple with two sustained 6/4 chords before the main theme is launched. And yet it is a real challenge to get the impetus right. Surprisingly, I feel Rattle and his orchestra are just a tiny bit sluggish here, and the first time I listened I wrote in my notes “perhaps a bit more lift?” Things settle down nicely, though, at the grazioso (1:32) and this section is good, with life and a light touch. Oddly, having omitted the exposition repeats in the first two symphonies, Rattle takes the repeat in the Third and second time round I have the impression that the reprise of the opening pages has just that fraction more momentum and the music benefits. After the repeat the section marked agitato is just that and an exciting account of the development follows. At cue H, where the music slows, Rattle achieves a fine degree of mystery and the contrabassoon is a telling presence. I admired both the real sense of drive and vigour at cue L (11:47) and then the way Rattle winds the music down to a warm, radiant conclusion

His account of II is relaxed and mellow. One passage that particularly caught my ear was the section following cue C (2:36) where first the clarinet and bassoon and then the oboe and horn play a little duet. Not only is the solo playing excellent but also the gentle accompaniment in the strings is superbly weighted. The whole movement is quite lovely in this performance. There is no perceptible break before the start of III and I feel sure this is deliberate and how Rattle presented it in concert. I like the effect. The reading of III is warm and flowing.

The finale is strongly projected. The music making has abundant energy and rhythmic verve. Worthy of note is the husky tone of the violas just after cue N (6:32) as the music starts to wind down, preparing for the wonderful Un poco sostenuto coda (from 7:01). In this coda the music glows. Every detail is carefully balanced by Rattle and his players provide sovereign playing. The dynamics are weighted superbly and the end result is a serene, radiant close.

And so to the Fourth Symphony, arguably the most intellectually rigorous of the symphonies. Rattle handles I convincingly, contrasting the two main ideas very well. The material with which the movement begins has grace and a gentle melancholy and is so treated whenever it appears. By contrast the marcato material, first heard at 1:38, is suitably pointed in expression and whenever this music is in the ascendancy it’s treated with appropriate vigour. Around bar 240 (7:36) Rattle invests the music with an almost Brucknerian sense of mystery. Perhaps it’s a little bit overdone but it’s certainly atmospheric. The last few pages of the movement are strong and fiery.

For the first and only time in the cycle I find myself at odds with Rattle’s approach to a movement in the following Andante moderato. I’m afraid that, to my ears, he takes the music too slowly and Andante moderato soon starts to feel almost like Adagio. I did some checking against a few other versions chosen at random from my shelves. Where Rattle takes 12:12 for this movement Carlos Kleiber (with the VPO on DG) takes 11:24. Gunter Wand takes 10:47 in his 1983 recording (RCA) and Semyon Bychkov, whose cycle I admired a few years ago, takes 11:17. Though the orchestra realise Rattle’s conception of the music superbly, especially the eloquent wind principals, I feel his tempo is just too indulgent.

Happily, things are back on track in III, which is given an exhilarating performance, full of brio and joie de vivre. Rattle’s also successful in the mighty passacaglia. The darkly powerful music at the start is superbly projected. Later on the bleak flute solo (3:19) is marvellously done and, not to be outdone, other wind principals offer some very fine playing in the following pages. The return of the opening music (6:06) is passionate and intense and this mood is sustained for much of the remainder of the movement. The Pił allegro (9:17) heralds a fiery conclusion.

How to sum up this Brahms cycle? Well, I think it’s a considerable achievement. As will be evident from my previous comments, I hope, all four symphonies benefit from virtuoso playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker. This music must be in their very blood and they play it with intensity, commitment and great finesse. I have the impression that Rattle has thought through every bar afresh and has prepared the performances scrupulously. That’s not code for “calculating” or “micro management”. Attention to detail is essential if one is to obtain performances of this quality and stature. There are one or two instances where perhaps a detail is overdone and I don’t like the approach to the second movement of the Fourth but overall I was convinced by these performances and enjoyed them very much. Incidentally, though it’s not always easy to be sure since there’s very little antiphonal writing for the first and second violins in these scores, I’m as sure as I can be after listening through headphones as well as loudspeakers that Rattle divides his fiddles left and right, something of which I greatly approve.

I can imagine some listeners having reservations about the recorded sound. It’s clear but somewhat closely balanced. I found it perfectly acceptable but in an ideal world I’d have liked a bit more space round the sound. I know that EMI’s recordings in the Philharmonie have been criticised in some quarters and I’m not convinced they’ve quite cracked this venue yet.

Is this Rattle cycle, as EMI claims, “a new milestone in the history of Brahms recordings”? Perhaps that’s too big a claim to make for it, not least because it faces formidable competition. However, I believe it is a very significant achievement and it has strong claims on the attention of collectors. I come back to Mark Bridle’s assessment of Rattle’s Beethoven set. I don’t think this Brahms cycle is impulsive but I’d certainly describe it as “deeply considered and intellectually thought through.” Mark concluded his commentary on the Beethoven cycle by saying “this is undoubtedly an important set of the symphonies and one that should be widely heard. It does pay repeated listening and has given this reviewer immense pleasure.” I can’t think of a better way to sum up my own reaction to Sir Simon’s thoughts on the Brahms symphonies.

John Quinn



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