I listened to Chailly’s recent Leipzig Brahms set having come fresh from enjoying his version of the Beethoven symphonies. In many ways they are obvious companions, and the Gewandhausorchester has a comparable heritage in Brahms to what it does for Beethoven. I found this set every bit as enjoyable. It displays so many of the same virtues as the Beethoven, only the relationship of conductor and orchestra had had an additional three years to bed in before this was recorded, so the qualities are in some cases even more special.
One of the key distinguishing features of Chailly’s Beethoven set was his preference for fast tempi. In many ways, his Brahms symphonies should be characterised by quick tempi too – he fits all four symphonies onto two CDs while observing all the available exposition repeats: others, like Karajan, who fit all the symphonies onto two discs observe none of the repeats – but if they are then it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, Chailly’s tempi seem to make very reasoned sense without sounding fast. True, put his introduction to No. 1 alongside Furtwängler’s or even Abbado’s and you will notice the difference, but his conducting here isn’t characterised by speed: it is characterised by lean-ness. He has an uncanny ability to coax from the Leipzigers a sound that is full-bodied, rich and vibrant but that never sounds cloying or thick. You get that right from the off: the violin line that sears out of the opening bars of No. 1 sounds vital without being weighed down by its own importance. True, I love the sheer scale and portentousness that Karajan gets out of this line in his 1977 Berlin recording of the First – still my favourite recording of this symphony, for all that it now sounds old-fashioned – but I also loved the clean-ness that Chailly manages, as if he has restored an old master painting and we are seeing it afresh as for the first time in years. This characterises the playing - and especially the string tone - throughout the set. Listen, for example, to the way the cellos sing out the second subject of No. 2’s first movement, or how the middle strings announce the main theme of that symphony’s Adagio. It showcases Chailly’s ability to play this music, so central to the core symphonic repertoire, as if it were chamber music to be played among friends. Others do this with a loss of scale (step forward John Eliot Gardiner and Nikolaus Harnoncourt), but Chailly’s achievement is to bring intimacy together with symphonic grandeur. After all, having established this clean-ness of line, Chailly then uses it to set up a terrifically exciting symphonic argument in No. 1’s first movement, losing none of the all-important passion, and when that big string theme arrives in the finale it sounds as rich and exciting as it should.
All of this is a sure sign of how closely this orchestra and conductor have come to read one another and to understand each other’s respective visions. Again and again, Chailly moulds their sound into something uniquely expressive and responsive. The opening of No. 2, for example, sounds exploratory and curious, as if wide-eyed with the possibilities of what might lie ahead, and the first movement’s second subject is unveiled as though we are being let in on a secret. Likewise, those not-scherzo-third-movements of the first two symphonies unfold with sunny optimism and a sense of wonder that is most endearing, while the final moments of No. 2 manage to blaze with grandeur without ever sounding pompous, as if trying to preserve an attractive measure of modesty. No. 3, on the other hand, sets off like a ship at full sail, and the transparency of the playing - together with the excellence of the recorded sound - lets that E flat beginning tear its way out of the speakers with a clarity and a vision that never cloys or overwhelms. The busyness of the string figurations at the end of the exposition lead into a development of stormy passion - listen to that cello line - that they prefigured in the turbulent central section of No. 2’s slow movement and which will feature again thrillingly in the fourth variation of No. 4’s passacaglia. Perhaps the string sound in No. 3 doesn’t quite have the sheen, passion and brightness that the Berliners give Rattle in his 2008 set (and which I found so stunning in the flesh), but they sound as though they are carrying less baggage, and this will appeal to any who want their Brahms to sound fresh. The two middle movements provide plenty of beauty; listen to the rocking brass that finish the Andante. This is achieved without any sentimentality - the Poco allegretto is always moving forward. The finale is clipped and precise while remaining exciting throughout. The spidery strings of the coda are magical, partly because they are so clear.
All of the best qualities of Chailly’s Brahms interpretations reach their peak in the Fourth Symphony, which gets the finest performance of all. The string tone shows off its marvellous variety in a spectacular way. There is a slightly pinched quality to the violins’ playing of the very first theme which lends it a wistful, almost regretful quality, and that cleanness also affects the cellos’ rendering of the second subject. However, Chailly’s restraint here means that when he later lets them off the leash the impact is all the greater. They find a new level of passion in the first movement’s coda and, most impressively of all, they are at their most full-blooded and ardent in the big, full string passage in the final quarter of the Andante where they surge and flow like a river in flood. The playing of the winds and brass is restrained and delicate throughout the first two movements. I’ve seldom heard that fanfare, so important to the structure of the first movement, played so subtly. They have a whale of a time during the frolics of the Scherzo. Chailly’s pacing is also expert throughout. The first movement develops like a sweeping drama, while the second movement is truly Moderato, meaning that nothing is held up unnecessarily. Everything comes to a head in the final Passacaglia, which unfolds like a psychodrama whose screw is being steadily tightened. The first entry of the trombones sounds genuinely startling, and the first nine variations seem to proceed with the tragic inevitability of an ancient drama, so that the halving of the pace and the entry of the flute in variation twelve comes across not just as balm but as a tension release. Then, on the sixteenth variation when the tempo returns to what it had been, the bite of the trombones and the scream of the violins as they tear down their scale is all the more unsettling. From this point on Chailly increasingly tightens the tension with crispness of attack and precision of articulation that rivals - and often surpasses - all the finest recordings of this work. I loved the way incidental details are often drawn to the listener’s attention. An example is to be found in the unstoppable sweep of the violins, even when they are merely providing subsidiary comment on the main action. There is no slackening of the pace as the final chord appears, placing its own unarguable full stop to what has just been heard.
Having fitted all four symphonies onto two discs, the Leipzigers display their largesse with a disc of more than the usual bonus items, all of which are interesting; some being a good deal more than that. Chailly gives us Brahms’ first thoughts on the First Symphony’s slow movement, as Mackerras had also done in his Scottish Chamber Orchestra recording. It’s an interesting curiosity, but it mostly consists of familiar material without the bridge passages that Brahms later wrote, so it’s like seeing the dots without someone having joined them up. Even more curious is the planned original opening to the Fourth Symphony, here given its very first recording. I first came across this when Radio 3’s Stephen Johnson covered it in a Discovering Music programme. Brahms takes the great “Amen” that closes the first movement and places a more pared down, sighing wind version of it at the start, before the violin theme begins. It adds an interesting circularity to that movement, but it diminishes the impact of the opening, and Brahms was quite right to ditch it in favour of making the violin theme the first thing we hear. Anyway, the introduction exists as a slightly awkward track on its own, so you can’t programme it in as an alternative first movement, even if you wanted to.
The overtures both sound great. Unlike the symphonies, the Academic Festival Overture does sound fast, but this gives it more bite and excitement, and the climax of the Gaudeamus igitur theme is a fitting fulfilment. The Tragic Overture benefits from the lighter texture, making it sound lithe and flexible, with a hint of threat lurking throughout. The two Intermezzi are interesting if unspectacular, and the Liebeslieder Waltzes are lots of fun in their wider range of variety. The Haydn Variations are delightful, though. The theme unfolds with unfussy class, and the violins pick up the first variation with vigour and zest. Some of the variations are noticeably fast (the sixth, in particular) but Chailly isn’t afraid to broaden out for the lovely Siciliana of the seventh, and this wide variety gives the work tremendous breathability. The Hungarian Dances are a great way of ending the set, full of swing, passion and an unusual degree of subtlety. I loved the way, for example, the violin line of No. 1 comes in a tiny fraction later than you expect it to, and each dance has an ebb and flow of dynamics that lifts it above the level of a mere filler.
It is for the symphonies, however, that people will buy this set, and rightly so. Chailly has built on Leipzig’s Brahms tradition and brought it right into the 21st Century. His vision combines with flexible, golden playing that sets this set apart and makes it, in my view, the finest set of Brahms symphonies to have appeared since Abbado’s Berlin cycle. He takes the lessons of the “authentic” movement, but avoids the wilfulness of Harnoncourt or the occasionally scrawny sound of Gardiner without losing the scale or sonic weight of Rattle and Zinman. The fillers only seal the deal. Buy with confidence.
Masterwork Index: Brahms symphonies