Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Brahms symphony cycle has been stimulating and richly rewarding in equal measure. This was not least because in the concert series, ‘Brahms: Roots and Memories’, during which these recordings were made, he chose to set the symphonies in the context of some of the composer’s choral works and of music by earlier composers whose music Brahms especially admired. This programme is in some ways the most stimulating of all in respect of the context in which Gardiner sets the symphony.
Unsurprisingly, Gardiner reminds us that Brahms based the passacaglia finale of the symphony on a slightly adapted version of the chaconne in the final movement of the cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. Gardiner has already given us two performances of the complete cantata in his Cantata Pilgrimage cycle, of which I think the one in Volume 25 is slightly to be preferred (review). On this present disc only the last two movements are performed. It’s most interesting, for study purposes, to be able to switch immediately from the second of these two cantata movements to the mighty passacaglia finale which it inspired.
Schoenberg famously referred to Brahms as “the Progressive”. He was speaking of Brahms the composer but quite possibly the same description could have been applied to Brahms the conductor. Brahms’ love of and respect for the music of previous ages is well known but this was no mere private, academic interest. Gardiner expands on this in the notes, which take the form of a conversation between him and composer Hugh Wood, as in previous volumes in the series. He points out that in 1864, when Brahms conducted the Singakademie concerts in Vienna he included in his programmes several cantata movements by Bach and also the pieces by Schütz and Gabrieli that are on this disc. In fact both of these pieces were included in Brahms’ second concert with the choir, in January 1864 and Jan Swafford observes in his biography of the composer (Johannes Brahms, 1998) that neither work was well received. The performance of the Gabrieli broke down, necessitating a re-start. The inclusion of such unfamiliar music was daring indeed.
Needless to say, the performances on this disc contain no such frailties. Gabrieli’s Sanctus has grandeur and I appreciated very much the lightly-sprung jubilation that Gardiner brings out in the “Hosanna”. The Schütz, by contrast, is an imposing piece. It’s scored for two violins, six vocal soloists and two four-part choirs. Gardiner also includes the optional brass parts, which double the choir parts. The piece is a masterpiece of concision and the performance it gets here is darkly dramatic - the soloists are excellent.
The other antecedent composer represented here is Beethoven, of whose shadow Brahms was always conscious. In the conversation with Hugh Wood, Gardiner brings out the influence of Beethoven on the Fourth Symphony and does so very convincingly. He makes the point musically too in a taut account of Beethoven’s spare, dramatic overture, which is expertly played by the ORR. The interpretation is quite fleet and the period instrument textures are light. The performance, which is strongly projected, is a very good one.
And so to Brahms. It’s good to find the Fest- und Gedenksprüche for a cappella choir included here because they’re not heard that often. However, what caught my ear particularly was the performance of Geistliches Lied. This beautiful, thoughtful little piece was scored originally for choir and organ. However, it’s heard here in an arrangement for string orchestra by Sir John. This seems to me to be most effective and although the arrangement was made for the practical reason that no organ was available in the hall in Paris where this programme was due to be given as well as in London, I hope that it will be published for I’m sure other choirs would like the opportunity to perform it. Gardiner and his choir give a luminous performance of this lovely miniature, culminating in a radiant ‘Amen’ (from 3:56 onwards). This conclusion is crowned by a soaring phrase for the sopranos (4:12), answered by the tenors and that moment is so beautifully done here as almost to be worth the price of the disc.
All these fascinating pieces lead up to the Fourth Symphony. Gardiner leads a trenchant and convincing account of the work. In I his interpretation is fluid and forward-moving and one feels a strong sense of purpose at all times. The ORR produces a lean, muscular sound and the part-writing emerges with great clarity. I particularly admired the dextrous woodwind playing. The coda is conspicuously successful; here the music is surging and powerful.
Clarity of texture is again very apparent in II. Gardiner is clear-eyed in his approach and so the music is not sentimentalised. But that doesn’t mean for one moment that the performance lacks feeling. On the contrary, the spirit of the music is brought out very convincingly and, for example, the noble melody between 7:28 and 8:17 is sung out with very satisfying warmth by the lower strings. The Allegro giocoso third movement brims over with energy and high spirits and the end of this movement is particularly exciting.
The epic passacaglia finale opens with great strength and purpose and throughout the movement Gardiner displays grip and maintains the tension. The flute variation (from 2:55) is remote and sad and the quiet variations that follow feature some splendidly assured and controlled playing on the part of the ORR. There’s a good deal of fire in the closing minutes of the movement and overall I felt this was a very successful and satisfying interpretation and performance not just of the finale but also of the symphony as a whole.
So Gardiner’s Brahms symphony cycle concludes in fine fashion. It’s been an absorbing series. Not only have the symphony performances been extremely fine but also, as I said earlier in this review, the way in which the symphonies have been placed in highly relevant musical contexts has given the series an added importance and distinction. This series has made me think about and appreciate the Brahms symphonies anew and that, surely, was the object of the exercise.
Though the symphonies have all now appeared that’s not the end of the cycle. I knew that the concert series had also included Ein deutsches Requiem but I wasn’t sure if a recording was to be issued, not least because Gardiner has already given us a very fine studio recording of the work, albeit that was issued quite a few years ago. It’s now clear that a new live recording is indeed on the way and that’s something to which I’m looking forward keenly.
Previous reviews of the Gardiner Brahms cycle:-
Symphony No 1
Symphony No 2
Symphony No 3