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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor [48:57]
Symphony No.2 in D major [43:32]
Symphony No.3 in F major [42:51]
Symphony No.4 in E minor [44:26]
Berlin Staatskapelle/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, October 2017, Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5251 [4 CDs: 179:38]

It seems that fifteen years ago I reviewed two concerts of Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin playing a Brahms cycle in London at the Royal Festival Hall. I suppose it’s largely because that cycle proved problematical – and distinctly uneven – that it didn’t stick in the mind, but many years later I can’t honestly say things have improved that much – in fact, in the case of the Fourth Symphony they seem to have taken a nasty turn for the worse. What this latest cycle really does lack is flexibility of tempo, or, at times, even a basic understanding of it. The final movement of the Fourth – marked by Brahms Allegro energico e passionato – is as good as place as any for a listener to begin; I’ve listened to Barenboim’s handling of this movement a dozen times and I still can’t work out what he’s doing here. The orchestra swells but Barenboim swims against them; internal phrases are lingered over to such an extent the music almost ceases to have a pulse at all. Brahms may well have written this movement as a set of variations but he didn’t intend it to be played in such a disjointed fashion.

In one sense, this new cycle, or certainly the experience of listening to it, is rather the antithesis of how Daniel Barenboim explains his relationship to the Brahms symphonies. His argument that the symphonies should be approached through finding a balance between exploring the range of expression within the works, as well as performing them in a more classical way – by which he actually means less broadly – doesn’t quite play out. Listen to these recordings and they sound very old-fashioned, as broad as anything Barbirolli attempted in these symphonies; they do manage, in fact, to be hugely expressive at times, even passionate, but they aren’t remotely classical in temperament. Romantic, certainly, and that is rather brought home by the remarkable sound of the orchestra: I really can’t recall any modern cycle that sounds quite like this one. They come very close to being as perverse as the half-cycle that another pianist, Valery Afanassiev, made with the New Japan Philharmonic for Exton – though Barenboim steps back from the abyss of being that wantonly destructive of Brahms. If Barenboim’s Brahms is often unengaging, often because the music is simply driven in directions where the energy is sapped out of it, this has to be tempered by the fact the orchestra is compelling to hear.

In common with the live cycle I heard at the Royal Festival Hall, the performance of the First Symphony is very fine; it is also the one Berlin performance that remains closest to the 1993 Chicago cycle in terms of timing. I have certainly heard more imposing openings than the one Barenboim gives us (Giulini, for example) but at least it’s in tempo. Quite why Barenboim should be able to manage to understand what Brahms asks for in his First Symphony (generally), but then have such difficulty with the Allegro non troppo tempos for both the first movements of the Second and Fourth symphonies is beyond me, though this is one cycle where the tempi are all over the place. Barenboim seems happy to identify Brahms’s andantes as adagios – both the Third and Fourth are afflicted in identical ways. Even scherzos (though Brahms only really wrote one true one, in the Fourth) are substantially slower than a metronome tells me.

If Barenboim’s Bruckner has become significantly more fluid in recent years, his Brahms seems to have moved in the opposite direction. I was slightly reminded listening to this cycle of Pierre Boulez conducting some of the Beethoven symphonies in New York and London during the 1970s – performances that erred towards a musical extreme that seemed uncommon for that time just as Barenboim’s Brahms does today. He shares with Boulez a naturally fine ear for orchestral detail – Brahms wrote some beautiful passages for woodwind, especially in the First Symphony – and Barenboim almost luxuriates over the phrasing of these. Likewise, the brass playing is often regal and sonorous, even if it really doesn’t stand out as overly exciting. The closing chorale of the Second Symphony is so monumental you almost feel as if Barenboim is building it stone by stone.

These are live performances, but the recording is extremely detailed. I think the orchestral playing – and certainly the exquisite sound of the Berlin Staatskapelle – are worth hearing; but Barenboim’s interpretations are in no sense mainstream. In part, I was fascinated by them – perhaps because I found myself asking what the conductor was aiming for; but that fascination will not appeal to everyone. It says much about the sprawling nature of these performances that DG couldn’t couple symphonies together so we get one symphony per disc. It would be wrong to suggest that Barenboim is the first conductor to ignore what Brahms wrote in his score – Celibidache, Bernstein (especially in some of his concert recordings in Munich) and others are wont to reconfigure this composer in their own image. On the other hand, Karajan, notably in his live performances, Carlos Kleiber, Giulini and Klemperer drive this music forward with energy and incisiveness. At the end of the day, this is precisely what this new cycle lacks.

Marc Bridle


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