Brahms's Symphony No 4
Brahms, always whimsical about describing his music, liked to call this the 'Waltz and Polka Affair', the waltz being the last movement and the polka the third. But it was his own favourite orchestral work. Possibly inspired by his reading of Oedipus and other Greek tragedies, this is a towering work, tinged with melancholy. The last movement, far from being 'a waltz', is an exultant passacaglia on a theme derived from Bach's Cantata No 150. Some critics cite Brahms as the greatest master of counterpoint since Bach. Here is the proof - the force of the music is irresistible.
Symphony No 4
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Carlos Kleiber
DG The Originals 457 706-2GOR (40‘ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
Carlos Kleiber’s charismatic 1981 Vienna recording, a classic of sorts and still sounding exceptionally well, continues to stand its ground. From the beginning, he keeps the speed fairly steady. In the first movement’s coda, he scores over many of his rivals with prominent horns and a particularly exciting conclusion. He opens the second movement in a rather perfunctory manner, but the Vienna cellos make a beautiful sound in the piano dolce second subject. In the Scherzo, Kleiber pulls back for the two accented notes that dominate the first theme, an interesting gesture that lends the music an appropriately swaggering gait. This, arguably, is his finest movement – also from 4'48", where he keeps the timpani’s triplets crystal-clear, then pushes his horns very much to the fore. Overall, Kleiber in the Fourth is the knight with shining breast-plate, bold, handsome, outgoing, relatively straightforward and (this will court controversy) perhaps just a little superficial.
Symphony No 4
Coupled with Hungarian Dances Nos 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 (orch Breiner)
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Marin Alsop
Naxos 8 570233 (65’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
The LPO, London’s finest Brahms ensemble, has been in vintage form during this cycle under Marin Alsop’s measured and thoughtful direction. Not since the classically incisive Loughran/Hallé recordings of the mid‑1970s has there been a more obviously collectable budget-price Brahms set.
Alsop’s reading of the Fourth Symphony is not dissimilar to Sir Adrian Boult’s 1972 LPO recording. Like Boult, Alsop is happy to establish a tempo and emotional trajectory for each movement and leave it at that – a plausible view given the astonishing degree of thematic integration that underpins the work.
As elsewhere in the cycle, tempi tend to be measured. The Andante moderato is downright slow, though Alsop manages to maintain line and interest. The Scherzo, happily, is a true Allegro giocoso, which is important. By acting out the role of a conventional finale, the Scherzo leaves the actual finale free to enact its own tragic destiny.
The recording sounds well if played at a decent level. In the Scherzo, the triangle (deliciously placed and recorded in the Hungarian Dances) is more an impression than a presence. There is also an editing glitch midway through the movement, not the first in this series. The seven Hungarian Dances, unorchestrated by Brahms, are heard in newly commissioned orchestrations by Peter Breiner. The thudding fairground timpani in No 6 doesn’t appeal. Elsewhere, piquancy is the watchword, with stylish playing from the LPO, gamesomely led.
Symphony No 4
Coupled with Hungarian Dances – Nos 1, 3, 10, 17, 18, 19, 20 & 21 (orch Brahms; Dvorák)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC5186 309 (58’ · DDD/DSD). Buy from Amazon
It’s been true for many years now that American orchestras have been sounding more middle-European, but the Pittsburgh Symphony could easily be mistaken for a top German orchestra, like Leipzig or Dresden, in this music. Listen to the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony where Marek Janowski really has his players leaning into the harmonic radiance of the writing. All those wondrous transfigurations evolve so naturally and so dreamily that the brawny exuberance of the Scherzo – tough and resilient in Janowski’s hands – really does come as an unexpected blast.
Approaches differ greatly with regard to the highly innovative first movement, the whole of which constitutes a development of sorts. So, how soon do the darkening clouds descend? For some they cannot descend soon enough. But here it’s as if Janowski is delaying the inevitable right through to the high anxiety of the final pages. He tightens the screw relatively late in the movement. The slow movement then restores some sense of prior well-being and inner calm, as does the still centre of the finale with its tranquil flute and trombone-led chorale variation. The refulgence of the playing is a constant source of pleasure.
The Hungarian Dances come in Brahms’s and Dvorák’s orchestrations, their kinship self-evident. They are earthy and sinewy with plenty of surge factor in the lower strings and the requisite cheekiness in the phrasing exemplified by those traditionally tantalising hesitations and stomping downbeats.
Symphony No 4
Coupled with Geistliches Lied, Op 30. Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op 109 Bach Cantata No 150, ‘Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich’ – Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn; Meine Tage in den Leinden Beethoven: Coriolan, Op 62 Gabrieli: Sanctus and Benedictus a 12 Schütz: Saul, Saul was verfolgst du mich?, SWV415
Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG705 (71’ · DDD). Recorded live 2008. Buy from Amazon
If Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is an essay in self-consummation, so too is the life that effected its making. And it is this which John Eliot Gardiner’s superbly planned 10-item programme so revealingly explores. After the gauntlet has been thrown down by Coriolan, the story is taken up with music by two earlier composers from whom Brahms learnt his craft. Brahms included Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sanctus and Benedictus and Schütz’s scarifying brief psychodrama of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in a concert with the Vienna Singakademie in 1864. Gardiner has examined Brahms’s score for the –occasion, with its astutely pencilled markings. The Monteverdi Choir realise Brahms’s vision to perfection.
Movements follow from the Bach cantata whose subtly modified concluding chaconne provided the germ-cell for the symphony. From there we descend into the pool of quiet which is Brahms’s own Geistliches Lied, a workshop essay in fashioning a double canon at the ninth which is also a vision of the peace which comes from the acceptance of God’s will. Finally there are the three linked a cappella ‘festal and commemorative sentences’ which post-date the symphony but which wonderfully complement it in their creative redeployment of Baroque craft.
Gardiner’s account of the symphony begins with a brisk and cleanly voiced account of the exposition, its literalness and flexibility nicely matched. Unusually for a period-instrument performance, there is a finely developed use of legato here, even on occasion a hint of Viennese portamento.
What follows is a good deal more of a disjunct. The movement ends with a blazing account of the coda which out-Furtwänglers Furtwängler in the frenzy of the (unmarked) acceleration through the final 40 bars. The development, however, is skated over. This is odd since the slow movement is beautifully done, the old instruments bringing out the music’s quaint ballad-like quality to illuminating effect.
In the third-movement Allegro giocoso, the last to be written and taken here at a terrific lick, there is little sense of the epic revel Brahms has created. The finale, by contrast, is superbly done, Gardiner and his players bringing the symphony – and the cycle – to a compelling close.
There have been finer individual Fourths than this yet there has never previously been a recording which so vividly magics the work out of its own private hinterland for our delectation and awe.