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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Symphonies
Symphony No.1 in C minor Op.68 [44.03]
Symphony No.2 in D major Op.73 [37.11]
Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90 [35.14]
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 [39.59]
Bonus: Discovering Brahms with Thomas Hengelbrock. Interviewer Janin Reinhardt [43.18]
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester/Thomas Hengelbrock
rec. live, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, Germany, 22 May 2016
Blu-ray: Sound, PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1, Video 16:9, High Definition 1080i.
Notes in English, German and French.
Subtitles Bonus: German (original language), English
C MAJOR 741104 Blu-ray [210 mins]

It was quite a surprise to discover on opening this review disc that the four Brahms symphonies were recorded in one concert: the grand finale of the 2nd Hamburg International Music Festival. Thomas Hengelbrock decided it was a good idea to celebrate Hamburg's great musical son in this way . It would seem the audience agreed and they are very enthusiastic. He himself was heard to say as he left the stage that he wished there was a fifth and sixth symphony to perform as well. This being a film, it is interesting to note that the principal oboe changes between the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, maybe because this was a very long concert. The cover picture of Hengelbrock rather than the new Elbphilharmonie building should alert viewers to the fact that the Elbphilharmonie Orchester, previously known to English music lovers as the Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra, did not perform this concert in their remarkable new hall on the banks of the Elbe but in their old one, the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg. One soon gets over the disappointment because musical standards are very high, this is still a top orchestra with some great principals. Hengelbrock was an unknown name to me but it seems he is well established as a Baroque specialist, a violinist and a stage director. His superb performances of Brahms' great cycle show he is a man of many talents.

The 1st Symphony has always been a tough nut to crack, not only for the composer. It is the longest of the symphonies, in most if not all recorded cycles, and in the wrong hands can sound like it. Here there is energy and precision aplenty. I wonder if Hengelbrock's Baroque background helps him attend to the tiny detailed articulations which are necessary in Bach and Vivaldi and when transferred to a romantic masterpiece help no end to propel the music forward. Brahms is one of those composers who seem to be moving slowly on the surface but often very fast in the details. So it seems in this rendering. For me it works very well. Hengelbrock takes the 2nd Symphony quite briskly overall without in any way neglecting the many wonders of this beautiful score. He generates much passion and excitement in the Finale leaving one feeling invigorated. The 3rd Symphony is more relaxed, particularly so in the allegretto 3rd movement and again the Finale is outstanding. It is directed with great subtlety, starting gently and building to a veritable storm of a central section before Brahms' beautiful relaxation to a quiet conclusion.

The 4th is presented with grandeur as well as energy. Its intentionally old-fashioned forms are presented with all the strength and detailed precision needed to close what must have been a remarkable concert. An interesting, indeed intriguing, point about this performance is the inclusion of four introductory bars at the beginning of the first movement, that Brahms added very late on. These are in his autograph score after the double bar at the end of the first movement with an indication that they should be inserted at the start. He then changed his mind despite the comment from Joseph Joachim, who conducted the premiere, that he, "would almost regret that you deleted the introductory measures." Hengelbrock mentions this in his talk but there is nothing in the accompanying essay by Karina Saligmann. Those interested in this musical footnote should search out Louis Litterick's article "Brahms the indecisive: notes on the first movement of the Fourth Symphony".

The lengthy bonus discussion between Thomas Hengelbrock and his well prepared and enthusiastic interviewer, TV presenter and actress Janin Reinhardt (now Janin Ullmann) is a very valuable addition. Apart from the occasional intercutting of rather unsatisfactory cartoon-graphics accompanied by still worse musical cutting and pasting, the conversation is well structured and highly informative with specially recorded illustrations by the Elbphilharmonie Orchester. Hengelbrock is an excellent communicator and talks apparently without notes about Brahms’ life in general and the four symphonies in particular. He is full of enlightenment and clearly interests the attentive studio audience who were present during the filming. Janin Reinhardt seems to be with him all the way in his enthusiasm for this music. The entire exercise was far from what one might expect on UK television. One would have to imagine Alex Jones discussing Elgar with Sir Mark Elder for 45 minutes on primetime TV. It is not that she couldn't, maybe she could, more that nobody would think to do it that way. Once again, the Germans show the way to do arts broadcasting.

In the middle of all this excellence it is almost a relief to note that the disc menu system is the usual mish-mash of ill-judged indexing: one cannot access individual symphonies at all easily; the default is to play the whole disc in one go, in stereo and without subtitles in the talk. To overcome this and play a single symphony in surround sound, surely the norm for video replay these days, one has to start the complete programme and then make selections. This is all compounded with the usual sin of music over menus. They clearly will never learn in post production that music is not wallpaper and that listeners like to listen to individual works on a well filled disc like this. The old LP was so simple by comparison. Fortunately, the video direction of this disc is unobtrusive except for the oddly chosen camera position for the timpanist. Other than that, the picture just provides a good view of proceedings. Sound is, as always these days, excellent.

All this said, the Brahms Symphonies are so key in any collection that the great audio-only performances must not be forgotten. For me the ultimate set is: No.1 Bohm/Berlin Philharmonic on Esoteric SACD; No.2 Sawallisch/Vienna Symphony Orchestra on Philips or Decca; No.3 Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony on Sony Classical; No.4 Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic on DG Blu-ray Audio.

Dave Billinge



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