Brahms Symphonies Nos 1-4, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits
Rebecca Franks enjoys a fresh and confident Brahms Symphony cycle at Colston Hall
It’s not so very often that the chance to hear all four of Brahms’s Symphonies back-to-back in concert comes up. But of all symphony cycles, this is one that's worth hearing like that.
For a start, there’s no weak link in the quartet – even the First Symphony, worked on for over 21 years, is a fully-fledged masterpiece, no mere testing ground for his technique. Then there are the connections between the works that come to light – how Brahms uses the cello section for melodic outpurings, for instance, and the horn for moments of pure heaven.
And finally there's the bigger picture: Brahms, ever the perfectionist, almost certainly had one eye on the overall shape and pacing of his symphony cycle. In mood, at least, the four almost act like a symphony in themselves: the C minor staking out his orchestral territory, the D major a pastoral slow movement, the lyrical F major an ephemeral intermezzo, before the crowning glory of the E minor Fourth Symphony with its masterly passacaglia fourth movement.
Kirill Karabits, conducting his Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, offered confident and refreshing accounts. The clarity of the orchestra’s sound and pacy tempos in the First Symphony revealed much of the music’s compositional logic (and perhaps reflected Brahms’s own reported taste for brisk tempos) but what gave rise to tension and anticipation on the one hand, also created a metronomic, machine-like feel that left little room for the music to breathe. ‘I myself have never believed that my blood and a mechanical instrument go well together,’ Brahms said of the metronome. Yet Karabits drew attention to much colourful detail, including a wonderfully characterful contrabassoon.
The Second Symphony, written a year after the First was completed, brought out the architect in Karabits, who took care of every dovetail and cornice in the expansive first movement. Melodies were expressively sung, with a sense of passionate outpouring perhaps more often reserved for Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky. A sour wind chord at the end of the Adagio, and a couple of fluffed brass entries stuck out. But there was some glorious horn playing, and the brass came into their own in a blaze of sound to cap the Second Symphony.
The heart of the Third Symphony is, in many ways, its third movement. A minor-key allegretto, it should be lyrical, bittersweet, flowing. Here, it seemed caged in, a songbird unable to take wing. A shame, for in the rest of the Symphony – the gusts of wind rustling up leaves as Brahms marched 'free but happy' in the first movement, for instance – Karabits seemed in tune with the music’s emotional feel.
And so to the Fourth. From the yearning simplicity of its fragmentary melody in the first movement, to the contrapuntal complexity of the finale, Karabits had the measure of this Symphony. As did the orchestra who, with some brilliantly incisive string playing, brought the cycle to a superb close.