Johannes Brahms Symphony 4 (John Eliot Gardiner) Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

A reassessment of how Brahms' fourth and final symphony should be understood.

Charlotte Gardner 2010

During a 2008 BBC interview to mark the centenary of his birth, the composer Elliott Carter uttered the startling statement that live performances of his works rarely sounded the way they did in his head. Such an admission from this two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning centenarian sounded rather tragic, but in fact Brahms had a similar problem with his symphonies. Indeed, even the greatest conductors of his day could reduce him to despair. He accused Walter Frisch of "fussy over-determined expressivity", whilst a performance by Hans Richter was "truly awful". Thankfully for Brahms, people did occasionally get it right for him, garnering praise from him such as "exceptionally sensitive and scholarly", and "spirited and elegant". It's likely he would have approved of this particular disc too, the latest addition to John Eliot Gardiner's historically-informed Brahms series.

Gardiner's reading of Brahms' final symphony has been informed by the composer's more positive comments above, and also the annotated manuscripts left by Steinbach, a conductor whose performances Brahms was reputed to have enjoyed. Perhaps most importantly though, Gardiner has taken guidance from, and programmed the symphony alongside, the music that made Brahms tick – orchestral and choral works by his beloved Beethoven, Bach and Schütz, plus his own substantially-sized choral works. The resultant interpretation, performed on a small, period-instrumented orchestra, is a revelation.

Textures are as transparent as chamber music. Phrases and ideas are nuanced, but disciplined rather than heart-on-sleeve. Attack is crisp. In short, Gardiner and his orchestra have placed the work firmly within the classical tradition, as a natural continuation from Brahms' symphonic idol Beethoven, rather than the seamless precursor to Wagner. Fans of the highly expressive, big-orchestra sound will find climaxes smaller, swells less deeply plumbed, and timbres less fruitily rich. However, instead there's pace, energy, intelligently balanced lines, and notes that previously you'd have needed a score to detect amidst the general wash of colour.

This invigorating performance is more than an interpretation. It's an entire reassessment of how Brahms' fourth and final symphony should be understood and performed. Marvellous.

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