This CD has an unusual layout with the symphony situated sixth in the sequence of seven items on the disk. On this occasion I abandoned my usual method of reviewing disks - listening to the music before reading the booklet notes – and found an essay by John Eliot Gardiner about seeing Brahms’ symphonies in the context of his choral music. We also get a conversation between the conductor and composer Hugh Wood. I won’t spoil your delight in reading this by quoting any of it here – suffice to say it is illuminating, not just for this recording, but for Brahms’ output as a whole.
The first four items are for chorus unaccompanied apart from the second, Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang
, which has a horn and harp accompaniment. The Monteverdi Choir acquit themselves well in these pieces, singing sensitively and following the dynamic marks carefully. I particularly liked Einförmig ist der Liebe Gram
as it is the last of thirteen canons for female voices and uses the themes from Der Leiermann
from Schubert’s Winterreise
. They give a taste of the varied and extensive writing for the choir Brahms undertook throughout his life.
The other two vocal works are for chorus and orchestra, and are close in composition to the symphony. Gesang der Parzen
(The Song of the Fates) takes words by Goethe from Iphigenie auf Tauris
. As with most of Brahms’ music, there is an initial tempo marking but then very little to indicate variations in tempo; this being left to the conductor to decide. Contemporary reports on Brahms’ own playing tell of an ‘elasticity of tempo’, and this could be a cue for the conductor. John Eliot Gardiner sets a steady basic tempo for this piece and also sets the mood of the first words: “The human race should fear the Gods”. I feel that this basic pulse is just a little too slow and the piece seems to lack natural forward momentum, always dragging slightly. This compared with another recording by Colin Davis with Bavarian Radio forces, where the tempo is slightly faster and thus achieves a better sense of flow. Nänie
, with words by Schiller, also suffers from this. Davis again scores with a larger choir; the opening lines of Nänie
“Even beauty must die”, sounds … well … almost peevish with the Monteverdi Choir. However this is nitpicking, and if you don’t have a recording of either of these then you won’t be disappointed.
The Symphony benefits from an orchestra of ‘period’ instruments. I particularly like the horns when they have to use stopped notes which have a nasal quality which gives piquancy to the orchestral colour. There will be many disagreements about the tempi selected by Gardiner, and to my ear, with the period performers, the first movement has a directness which is refreshing, and although on the fast side, does not seem rushed.
The second movement is marked Andante
and starts off at a brisk pace. But soon we are slowing to enjoy some of the delights of this music. The third movement is marked Poco Allegretto
and so is open to wide interpretation, but I find that it is played with elegance and a transparency of texture I had not experienced before.
The finale has great energy although some may find this movement rushed. I don’t as I am used to listening to one of my favourite interpretations from Antal Dorati and the LSO from 1963 on Mercury - the recorded sound is a bit rough, but the interpretation is marvellous. He takes this in 7:47 – just 7 seconds slower than Gardiner. However, it is what you do in the time rather than the timing itself which counts and the present recording has the ‘elasticity of tempo’ mentioned earlier, raising it to a first rate performance and worthy of any collection, even if you have it solely as a very different way of treating the music.
The recording is, on the whole, well balanced and the relatively small choir is not lost behind the orchestra. There are just the odd occasions when some of the woodwind detail is covered but this does not detract from the overall impression, especially when you consider these were recorded at live concerts.
The CD is in a hardback booklet the same size as a CD case. As well as the articles mentioned above, it has text and translations of the choral items and a full listing of the orchestra and choir personnel.
See also review
by John Quinn