Brahms, Shoenberg

COMPOSERS: Brahms,Shoenberg
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms , Schoenberg
WORKS: Symphony No. 4; Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
PERFORMER: German SO, Berlin/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901884
It’s an excellent idea to couple Brahms Four and the Schoenberg Variations: both are classic examples of what the latter termed ‘developing variation’, the Brahms Symphony was one of the works which gave Schoenberg inklings towards the serial technique, and both works incorporate references to Bach – Brahms in his passacaglia theme drawn from Cantata 150, Schoenberg in the B-A-C-H motif he uses as an invocation and binding element throughout his work. Juxtaposed in this way, it’s easy to hear the continuity between the two masters: recognising Schoenberg’s Brahmsian base, his Variations seem more clearly founded on what he called ‘properly understood good old tradition’.

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Nagano gives an absolutely superb reading of the Schoenberg, the melodic lines shaped with affection, the complex textures perfectly and fastidiously balanced, but with a thrilling sense of through-composed drive and purpose as strong as in the Brahms. There’s a gratifying number of good competing versions but this probably knocks even Karajan’s classic recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, my favourite until now, off the top spot.

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The Brahms, however, is less outstanding. It’s an estimable reading, with a judicious choice of tempos, a natural flow, and some first-rate playing. The recorded balance, too, is very good at bringing out rarely-heard subsidiary voices. But what I miss here is the tension, the white-hot conviction in the outer movements that would hold the attention as strongly as Nagano does in the Schoenberg. And in this work the competition is infinitely fiercer – when Kleiber, Abbado, Walter, Karajan or Koussevitsky are available, a new version really has to do a great deal to justify its existence. Carlos Kleiber’s gripping interpretation, incandescent in its passion, safely remains the benchmark here. Calum MacDonald