Brahms Symphony No 4; Choruses a cappella, Op. 74/1, 109-10

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Brahms Symphony No 4, BlomstedtBrahms Symphony No 4, Blomstedt
Brahms Symphony No 4, KleiberBrahms Symphony No 4, Kleiber

Brahms Symphony No 4; Choruses a cappella, Op. 74/1, 109-10

  • Symphony No. 4
  • (2) Motets, Warum ist das Licht gegeben (Wds. Bible: trans Lut
  • Fest- und Gedenksprüche
  • (3) Motets
  • Symphony No. 4

Comparing these two very different performances is like listening to two sides of the same argument, the one centre-focused and forceful, the other homing in on relative subtleties and the small print. Herbert Blomstedt is ‘the other’ (so to speak), as sympathetic a Brahmsian as any I have heard in the last 20 years, though Carlos Kleiber’s charismatic 1981 Vienna recording – a classic of sorts and still sounding exceptionally well – continues to stand its ground. Significantly, Kleiber’s recording marks the 100th reissue in DG’s Originals series and a crossing at the technological divide between analogue and digital. The CD comes handsomely packaged with a 112-page, full-colour “Compactotheque” resume of the whole series, complete with “quotes from the critics”.
But, to return to the music. As early as bar 9 (0'09''), Blomstedt pushes both the tempo and the volume, whereas Kleiber – whose opening measures are less piano than Blomstedt’s – keeps the speed fairly steady. At 1'21'', just prior to the forte marcato woodwind idea, the Leipzig strings are more expressive than their Vienna counterparts (1'23'' on the DG disc), and they again shine resplendent at 2'32'', immediately before the second subject.
Blomstedt is marginally more responsive to Brahms’s finer dynamics – for example the mysterious pianissimo string figurations at 5'23'' – though Kleiber points the accompanying wind-brass-timpani chord a little more clearly. The principal difference between the two conductors, at least in the first movement, is of a structure viewed from within (Blomstedt), and from without (Kleiber). As to the coda, Kleiber scores with more prominent horns and a particularly exciting conclusion.
Kleiber opens the second movement in a rather perfunctory manner, whereas Blomstedt – who achieves a more telling legato – effects a subtler transition to pianissimo winds; and while the Vienna cellos make a beautiful sound in the piano dolce second subject (3'44''), Blomstedt’s Leipzig players, though leaner in tone, are no less expressive (at 3'55'' – likewise when they return poco forte espressivo at 8'17'', where Kleiber slightly rushes his fences – at 8'04'').
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, in my view, is Kleiber’s finest movement – also from 4'48'', where he keeps the timpani’s triplets crystal-clear (accentuating the first beat of the bar), then pushes his horns very much to the fore. Blomstedt plays by the book, though his finale is more flexible than Kleiber’s – and rather less dramatic, certainly in the forte opening chords. He broadens the tempo more for the flute solo at 97 (not in my view a virtue) and his re-entrance to ‘tempo 1’ later on is less of a jolt, tempo-wise, than Kleiber’s, though both conductors are by then noticeably faster than they were at the beginning of the movement.
The final reckoning is easily summed up: Blomstedt excels in the lyrical, equivocal sides of the score, thinking through each passage with great sensitivity though always with an ear for structure; and Kleiber is the knight with shining breast-plate, bold, handsome (beautifully played), outgoing, relatively straightforward and (here I know I shall court controversy) perhaps just a little superficial. As to choices, Kleiber has no coupling but sells at mid price, whereas Decca add some of Brahms’s finest a cappella choruses. Indeed, it was something of an inspiration to tail an “act that no one could follow” (the catastrophic ending of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony) with a chorus based on Job’s despair. The harmonically ‘old world’ Fest- und Gedenkspruche remind us of Brahms’s interest in early music, and the opening verse of the last of the Motets, Op. 110 – “When we are in direst need and know not where to turn” – has a meaningful harmonic complexity that is light years ahead of its time. It marks a beautifully sung conclusion to an extremely fine all-Brahms CD, one that enjoys the added advantage of excellent sound and that includes a performance of the Fourth Symphony that stands its ground even in comparison with the exalted benchmark versions listed at the head of this review.'

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