Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [47:07]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) [40:50]
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live: 30-31 October 2007 (Symphony 1); 6, 10 January 2010 (Symphony 4) Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900112 [47:09 + 40:50]
This disc follows close on the heels of these artists’ recording of the Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 on BR Klassik (SACD) 900111. Both Symphonies were recorded in the splendid acoustic of the Herkulessaal and audience applause has been retained at the conclusion of each symphony. In May 2011 I experienced at first hand just how empathetic the relationship is between Jansons and the Bavarian RSO. I eagerly await the opportunity to attend one of their Munich concerts.
Brahms was aware that by writing symphonies he was encroaching on 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 First Symphony 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 Symphony No. 1 was completed in 1876 although the gestation period had been protracted, making sketches for the score, it seems, over twenty years earlier.
The grave and leaden thuds of the threatening drums that open the first movement Un poco sostenuto - Allegro are implacably convincing. Impressive too is the beautiful oboe playing of the rising motif at 2:16. Throughout this movement an assured Jansons successfully provides generous quantities of beauty, sadness and even menace. Compared to many rivals it took me a while to get used to his rather measured pace. One senses that he is rather holding back his forces. Although Rattle comes close with the BPO in truth no one I have heard on record has managed to provide an opening of such raw power. It approaches that of Klemperer and the Philharmonia. There is a burnished autumnal countryside feel to the E major Andante sostenuto. One could imagine walking at the edge of an eerily tranquil and shadowy forest whilst anticipating the ominous onset of severe weather. In the midst of such glorious playing I was struck how much the rising melody for solo violin at 6:05 reminded me of a section in Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Warm and magnificently lyrical melodies abound in the short Un poco allegretto e grazioso right from the swaying opening measures. Its manner is reminiscent of Mendelssohn. This is fresh music of the great outdoors and is evocative of cool early morning dew over a backdrop of wonderful Alpine scenery. Jansons conveys a sense of intense activity in the closing Adagio - Allegro non troppo ma con brio as if lying on a verdant grassy bank gazing up at the tones and shapes of a swiftly changing sky. I loved the inspiring and highly memorable chorale melody. The writing really evokes the finale to Beethoven's ‘Choral’ Symphony.
It was in 1884 and 1885 that Brahms worked on his Symphony No. 4 at the Austrian summer resort of Mürzzuschlag in the Styrian Alps. 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.” It’s esteem has endured and remains for many Brahms’s most popular symphony. Walter Niemann found an intense degree of sadness in the fourth movement and wanted to describe the score as Brahms’s ‘Elegiac’ symphony.
A comforting mood of warm serenity and joy suffuses the swaying opening Allegro non troppo. In splendid performances such as this I am reminded of the verse, “perfectly cultivated earth. Honey of dawn, sun in bloom” from the poem Glimmer by Paul Éluard (1895-1952). Commencing with a striking horn-call in Jansons’s hands the E major Andante moderato feels like a dreamscape attaining beguiling heights of fantasy and grandeur. I love the good humour and vigour of the Scherzo as Jansons takes the music forward with majestic strides. In the dark key of E minor the final movement marked Allegro energico e passionato is a heroic drama constructed out of a theme and variations in the form of a chaconne often described as a passacaglia. Here Brahms introduces contrasts of the broadest imagination including chorale-style variations featuring horns and trombones. I especially enjoyed the lovely and moving passage for solo flute at 3:05-3:56 as well as the following woodwind interplay and the fierce and defiant hammer-blows.
Jansons and the Bavarian RSO provide highly accomplished performances even if they are unable to match the pervasive aura of heart-searching and the strong sense of excitement provided by Klemperer/Philharmonia and Rattle/BPO. The warm and well balanced sound quality from live concerts at the Herkulessaal, Munich is impressive.
It has been a ‘rite of passage’ for conductors to record a complete cycle of the Brahms symphonies and I have several splendid sets in my collection. My benchmark is the set of evergreen performances from Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia. These are aristocratic, powerful and expressive. They were recorded with the great producer Walter Legge at his favoured venue: London’s Kingsway Hall in 1956/57 and can be heard on EMI Classics 5 62742 2 (c/w ‘Haydn’ Variations; Alto Rhapsody with Christa Ludwig, mezzo-; Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures). The digitally re-mastered 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. I often play the sterling performances of the Symphonies 1-3 conducted by Eugen Jochum with the London Philharmonic Orchestra from the Kingsway Hall, London in 1956 on EMI Classics 5 69515 2. Re-mastered at the Abbey Road studios, for its age, Jochum’s sound is excellent too. For an accompanying single version of the fourth symphony I would add Carlos Kleiber’s commanding 1980 Musikverein, Vienna reading with the Vienna Philharmonic digitally recorded on Deutsche Grammophon 457 706-2. Of the modern digital sets I greatly admire the 2008 accounts from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle on EMI Classics 2672542. They were recorded live in the Philharmonie at single concert performances with some additional patching. In my review I described them as, “urgently spontaneous performances conveying a Romantic power of immense intensity.”
Jansons and his Bavarian Radio colleagues are impressive Brahmsians. Any serious collector should be happy to hold this set of Brahms’ symphonies.