Brahms Symphonies Nos 1-4
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
DG 483 5251 179:52 mins (4 discs)
If you like your Brahms big, beefy and beautiful, you’ll adore this set. Generally speaking, the four symphonies emerge here as vehicles for dramatic and often tragic expression. It is on some levels all about gorgeous playing from Barenboim’s Berlin Staatskapelle: ocean-deep string tone, heavenly horns, woodwind that yearn, converse and blend. Its many splendid qualities include an elemental power that can fire up into extraordinary intensity, notably in No. 4, which is arguably the most wholly convincing of the set.
Barenboim’s tempos are, for this day and age, leisurely. All the symphonies are treated with an expansive, broad-beamed approach. This has its advantages: the ear has time to savour the details and, of course, that sheer sonic magnificence. Nobody here has to catch a train soon. At times, admittedly, some might long for an easier sense of flow and perhaps more variety in approach. Nevertheless, Barenboim is by no means inflexible: the careful application of rubato means that often just when you think the music is well and truly stuck in treacle there will be a valuable injection of momentum; this ebb and flow keeps the music breathing and vital. Transition points are particularly noteworthy: just two examples of Barenboim’s expertise here are the way the strings sink almost to nothing before the entry of the horn in No. 1’s final movement solo, or the sudden quieting and darkening of colour in No. 4’s third movement before the return of the main theme. Sound quality is resonant and if anything over-rich – but coming from Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal, it represents the Staatskapelle on home turf.