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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 [34:02]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 [37:45]
Brandenburg State Orchestra, Frankfurt/Howard Griffiths
rec. 22-25 June 2015, Frankfurt (Oder)
KLANGLOGO KL1514 [71:47]

These performances are described in the booklet notes as ‘historically informed’. Lest anyone fear that this romantic music is played here on period instruments, may I add that the Brandenburg group is a modern instrument symphony orchestra which, under its music director Howard Griffiths, produces refined, rich toned playing of a high order. This is the kind of sound which lovers of central European music-making would expect to hear in a Brahms performance.

The notes claim ‘authenticity’ for the performances on different grounds, ones which ultimately derive from the “countless notes and comments” which the conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916) added to his scores of the symphonies. Steinbach was musical director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra and a friend of Brahms. His student Walter Blume (1883-1933) included Steinbach’s annotations in his book Brahms in the Meiningen Tradition.

A 2013 publication of this book interested maestro Griffiths, who has put “Steinbach and Blume’s notes into practice in his performances”. Steinbach’s concept places an “emphasis on agogic flexibility, allowing today’s conductors to vary the balance or tempo”.

Griffiths uses basic tempos which are somewhat faster than those heard in many of the classic Brahms recordings but, consistent with his stated aims, he employs a degree of flexibility which ensures that the music does not sound metronomic yet lacks nothing in forward momentum. It has a satisfying warmth. There is some interesting balancing at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony where more presence is given to the lower strings than usual, which I count as a gain.

It would be fair to say that other conductors in the relatively recent past have used a flexible approach to Brahms without necessarily being aware of, or following, Steinbach’s prescriptions. Furtwängler, when conducting romantic scores, used continuous, subtle variations in tempo for expressive effect. His live performances of these two Brahms symphonies - included in the boxed set Wilhelm Furtwängler – The Great EMI Recordings (review), and more recently issued on Pristine (review) - are slower than Griffiths’. That said, it can’t be denied that he invariably finds much more power at such moments as the great orchestral outburst which follows the quiet start of the last movement of the Third.

Griffiths’ treatment of both symphonies is predominantly warm and lyrical and the emotional temperature seldom rises to the level needed to do justice to the drama and passion which are an essential part of these works. The engineering is not entirely helpful in this regard. While it is warm and well balanced internally, it places the orchestra at a distance which tends to blunt the impact of the climaxes.

Rob W McKenzie



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