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Brahms sys LSO0570
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Johannes Brahms (1833–97)
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68 (1876)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 73 (1877)
Symphony No 3 in F major, Op 90 (1883)
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98 (1885)
Double Concerto for Violin & Cello in A minor, Op 102 (1887)
Serenade No 2 in A major, Op 16 (1860)
Tragic Overture, Op 81 (1881)
Gordan Nikolitch (violin), Tim Hugh (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 2003/4, Barbican Hall, London, UK.
LSO LIVE LSO0570 [4 SACDs: 244]

If you recall the old Pelican book on “The Symphony” (edited by Robert Simpson in 1966, and even now worth seeking out), the chapter on Brahms by Julius Harrison, sounding oddly contemporary, begins thus:

“In this age of turmoil and iconoclasm, the symphonies of Brahms still stand four-square to the world: pillars of classical architecture on whose firm consonant foundation nineteenth-century romantic sounds soar upward in a preconceived plan mindful of every detail however small. Nothing is left to chance; each movement has its course determined from the very first note.”

You might guess the composer being discussed here even if his name was omitted, not least because of the conjunction of classical form and Romantic expression. Balancing those elements is one key to great Brahms conducting. In that respect, Harrison’s remarks might almost be an introduction not only to these works, but to these performances.

In fact, Harrison’s use of “four-square” could almost be taken rhythmically, implying rather staid progress through the scores. Haitink, if someone hinted that a performance of his had been “solid” would ask “I wasn’t too Dutch, was I?” (Maybe he said that in London, rather than in Amsterdam where he recorded his first Brahms cycle in the 1970’s.)

Here, the First Symphony shows that the conductor has a sense of rhythmic impetus that is proportionate, maintaining momentum but never hard-driven, a sforzando, a sharp accent, but never a sledgehammer. Tempi are traditional, but a little more spacious in the first movement (no exposition repeat) live with the LSO compared to the 1972 Amsterdam studio account, 13:43 versus 12:56. The Andante sostenuto slow movement is well done, with a fine violin solo from Principal Gordan Nikolitch.

In the finale, there is a touchstone that can speak for almost all the Haitink interpretations of these symphonies. Let Norman del Mar explain, from his book “Conducting Brahms” (OUP 1993). He refers to the return of the chorale tune first heard p dolce on trombones and bassoons at fig. C: “The chorale itself, between bars 407 and 416, is conventionally pulled back….even though Brahms fails to mark this. In recent years attempts have been made, in view of current “authentic” rethinking, to preserve tempo absolutely, but the results could be thought disappointing or even unsympathetic. No doubt Brahms’s reason for not writing such obvious tempo adjustments into the score will have been a fear lest they were overdone.”

Now this tells us a lot about what interpreters actually face. The assumption that a composer might have failed to mark an “obvious” adjustment in his score, that conventional performing manners are right, and “rethinking” will be unsympathetic, all contribute to putting distance between what exactly Brahms had in mind and what happens in performance. One task of the interpreter is to diminish that distance. Haitink in his Amsterdam recording pulled the tempo back at this moment in the conventional way, but with the LSO here there is no ritardando. He keeps to his tempo and the effect is fine. The full brass scoring, ff marking, and long notes of the chorale succeeding the busier quavers and semiquavers, are “adjustment” enough. Haitink is fairly scrupulous in following markings (and ignoring those that are not there!) but he is not doctrinaire. There are some places, e.g. at fig C in this movement, where he interprets crescendo as “getting louder and a bit faster”, which is common enough in the heat of performance and by no means invariably unwelcome. Generally this great finale, one of Brahms’s most powerful, has all the drama required, even if it is not as fiery as with some other versions. However, that lack of fire afflicts the Tragic Overture also on disc one rather more, in a somewhat underpowered performance.

The performances of the Second and Third (review) Symphonies are for the most part warmer and more lyrical, coming after the rather severe approach to the First Symphony. The Second is certainly a successful account of the sort that balances the work’s symphonic drive with its several moments of poetic relaxation, with some fine solo contributions from the LSO wind players, who might have been accorded more presence in the recorded mix at times. The performance of the first movement of the Third Symphony lacks something in drive and is not helped by the steady tempo, which with the exposition repeat that Haitink observes, drags it out beyond sixteen minutes. The inner movements hang fire too, well played though they are by the LSO. The finale can only confirm the sense of this performance as slightly less than the sum of some quite impressive parts.

After the slightly lacklustre first two movements, in which, as before, there are incidental beauties, the third movement of the Fourth Symphony is the best in Haitink’s performance. This is what Brahms must have meant by allegro giocoso, one feels. The finale’s marking of Allegro energico e passionato, though, reads like wishful thinking when one reaches the coda, especially as unusually the conductor ignores the very last instruction the composer gives him – the più allegro (“a little faster”) seven pages from the close. “Brahms cannot exult”, complained Hugo Wolf, which I have always thought an outrageous slur - but at times this set made me wonder.

The two large extras, rather more than fillers, are valuable bonuses. The dark-hued (no violins) Serenade No 2 is a delightful work, and Haitink balances the unusual layout such that all remains clear, and instrumental detail, often delightfully played, can shine through. Haitink’s approach to tempo and expression is of a piece with his symphonic conducting, except that here the lighter serenade form is properly reflected in more relaxation at various times. But the best item perhaps in the whole set is the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. Instead of engaging a pair of career soloists, we have LSO Leader Gordan Nikolitch and Principal Cellist Tim Hugh. They both play superbly, listening and responding well to each other and their orchestral colleagues, which seems to generate a more engaging spirit throughout. Here and in the Serenade, we hear the LSO’s Brahms as much as Haitink’s.

The earlier issues of the four individual discs were stereo CDs, with the pair containing Symphonies Three and Four, also offering the SACD format. Here everything in the box is now in the SACD format which sounds very good, albeit in the sense of accurately reproducing the sound of the LSO in its less-than-ideal home concert hall. The booklet in English, French and German reproduces all the earlier very good notes on the works.

So here is Haitink’s estimable Brahms, still standing four-square to the world. More solid than sensational, it would not be a first choice in an immensely crowded field of the four symphonies. So many others have headed some critic’s list at one time or another. From Abbado and Alsop, Jochum and Janowski, Klemperer and Karajan, Sanderling and Solti, Wand and Walter – one could go on (abandoning the alliteration) and still not exhaust those with greater claims on the collector than Bernard Haitink in this particular repertoire. Ultimately, referring back to Julius Harrison on Brahms, Haitink favours the classical form over Romantic expression or dramatic excitement. If that is a view of Brahms you share (which is feasible at the least), he could be your choice, and these LSO accounts surpass Haitink’s Amsterdam (review) and Boston cycles I think, not least because of the sense of a live performance. But if you look for more from a Brahms symphonic performance, the excellent alternatives are numerous.

Roy Westbrook

Published: October 25, 2022

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