WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 ; Variations on the St Anthony Chorale; Tragic Overture; Academic Festival Overture
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-13136-2
In an interview in the booklet that accompanies these CDs, Nikolaus Harnoncourt likens the relationship between different generations of musical interpreters to two intelligent friends in a discussion who ‘feel the need to adopt differing views, even though they do not really occupy differing standpoints’.
It’s a seductive image, but anyone who takes Harnoncourt at his word is going to miss something. These recordings are not knee-jerk revisionism: there is something genuinely subversive here. Take the Second Symphony. At first the work’s habitual serenity appears unchallenged, but a creeping disquiet insists all is not as it should be. Rests last a fraction longer than usual, tempi are hesitant and uncertain, nagging and pulling at the surface calm. The result is an uncomfortable tension all the more unsettling for being subtle, almost ignorable. The symphony’s wonted lyrical ease is no longer tenable but is undermined by a dark sadness shot through with regret. The ending is triumphal, but one is conscious as rarely before of the cost of that triumph.
In the Third Symphony, too, expectations are confounded. The work’s beauty has never been more apparent – Harnoncourt is a staunch advocate of this Cinderella of the quartet – but is transformed into a strange and disturbing vision. The analysis of the middle movements in particular is trenchant and irresistible, forcing the most familiar elements to regroup in new, surprising shapes.
The other symphonies, to a lesser degree, also yield unfamiliar aspects. It’s all done without melodrama, yet the need to reassess the music is undeniable. Harnoncourt’s standpoint is different and is one which demands that we question all our certainties. Do we really know Brahms’s symphonies?