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Brahms symphonies PTC5186852
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F major Op. 90
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op. 98
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 2021, Gewandhaus, Leipzig
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PENTATONE PTC5186852 [81]

We live in an age that privileges information excessively over wisdom and whatever constitutes wisdom in music, it is here in abundance on this new recording from Herbert Blomstedt and his elite orchestra. The present release completes a cycle of the Brahms symphonies from these forces that has already seen some of the best Brahms I’ve heard in years. Anyone familiar with the earlier recordings of the first two symphonies need only be told that this new recording is up to the standards they set and go and buy it. My only possible complaint about this new CD is that the coupling robs us of a St Anthony Variations or an Alto Rhapsody!

As before, Blomstedt’s way with the Brahms is calm and far sighted. Nothing is rushed or snatched at. Textures are clear and painstakingly thought through. Every note is given its full value. Every phrase has its place within the overall conception of the symphony. If this all sounds a little dull then the opening bars of the third symphony will dispel such a notion rapidly. The first thing that strikes the listener is the glow of the orchestral sound. Obviously this has a lot to do with the Gewandhaus but in Blomstedt they have evidently found a kindred spirit. Blomstedt understands that the real life of both these scores lies in the inner parts over which immense love and patience have clearly been lavished.

Blomstedt’s vision of both these pieces is clearly that they are works of a middle aged composer dealing with the losses and consolations of the passing of youth. There is nostalgia and regret but ultimately, in very different ways, both symphonies work their way to a kind of stoic acceptance. It is into this framework that all of this marvellous detail is set.

I did, however, take issue with the intrusive and rather fussy bumping around on the timpani during the opening fanfares of No.3. It drove me back to the score where I could find no justification for how it is played here. It is, nonetheless a very minor blemish especially next to the swooping phrases of the violins in this passage. Even Furtwängler’s incomparable live version from the Titania Palast in 1949 (one of the truly great recordings of anything ever in my view and very different from Blomstedt) has violins that rather screech these swinging phrases. Blomstedt’s violins really sing.

Blomstedt is at his masterly best ushering the finale of No.3 from passion through poignant regret to placid resignation. The last, shimmering descent of the motto theme on the strings is as affecting as Wotan bidding farewell to Brunnhilde in Die Walküre. The entirety of Blomstedt’s conception of the symphony seems to have this transition in mind from the start. The climax of the first movement, almost frenzied in Furtwangler’s hands is as ripe as a late summer afternoon in this recording. Similarly, this third is not as dark as it can be but hovers between light and dark without ever really resolving into either.
Turning to the Symphony No.4, the coda of the opening movement is a make or break moment in any interpretation. Even Furtwängler, a truly great interpreter of this symphony, sometimes got carried away with the rising passion of this music and accelerated to the point of rush and confusion. The trouble is that if, at the other extreme, a conductor sticks too closely to the established tempo then this majestic tragic vision remains stolid and dull. Blomstedt is outstanding here. As more evidence of his long term thinking, it is clear that he has this coda in his mind from the first bars of the movement. His view of the rest of movement is essentially lyrical but as the tension rises as we move toward the coda we realise that Blomstedt has been holding his orchestra in reserve. He needs only the mildest of accelerandos and to unleash the full power of his stunning orchestra for the coda to hit home with both force but also a profound sense of completion. As the symphony goes on, that sense of tragic inevitability grows to even greater significance.
The performance of the scherzo third movement is like a distillation of Blomstedt’s art. So unhurried in fact that I feared that it might fatally lack drive but what we get instead is something festive and grand. Every note seems placed with absolute conviction as to pitch, tone colour and its place within the orchestration and Brahms’ orchestration positively gleams in response. The cumulative weight of this account is almost overwhelming dispelling my fears it might be underpowered. That weight isn’t aggressive or violent but calm, wise and certain. I don’t think I have ever heard a performance in which the tragic inevitability of the finale flowed so naturally from this scherzo rather than in contrast. Blomstedt is at one with the fact that such inevitability is the nature of tragedy and that, following Nietzsche, the mortal nature of man is inherently tragic.

The account of the finale is at the opposite extreme from the white hot passion of Furtwängler in this movement. The first thing that struck me is how much Blomstedt finds in common between it and the finale of third symphony. There is a similar sense of calm mature resignation. In Blomstedt’s hands, the tragedy enacted is the tragedy of all men in the face of time rather than a specific event. It is a tragedy of loss and regret rather than terror. The Gewandhaus trombones at the outset of the movement are not announcing the end of the world but something much more mellow and poignant. This movement can often end up being sober to the point of gruffness. Music to admire rather than to love. Blomstedt clearly loves it as, even though he doesn’t shy away from its fundamental darkness, he is always tender and consoling in manner.

There are downsides to playing Brahms 4 this way. Compare the almost Wagnerian transition from the first movement development back to the recapitulation and Blomstedt lacks spine chilling mystery compared to Manfred Honeck’s much admired recent Pittsburgh recording. At the opposite end of the opulence scale in terms of the size of the orchestral forces used, Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra get as close to this uncanny passage as anyone in an identical coupling of these two symphonies on ABC Classics.

On balance, however, I greatly enjoyed this autumnal, wise look at the Fourth. Played this way, its tragedy is enriched with a greater variety of emotions. There are definitely more thrilling versions but there is a deep sense of rightness which attends such magisterial music making. The overriding impression is of gorgeous sounds and textures. I can’t think, for example, of a more ravishing account of the slow movement.

The word I keep coming back to when contemplating this recording is ‘satisfying’. As I hope is abundantly obvious, this is said as the highest praise. This completes one of the finest new Brahms symphony cycles for quite some time and demands the attention of any serious lover of this music.

David McDade

Previous review: John Quinn

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