Brahms: Symphonies Nos 1-4

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-4
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 267 2542

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This is certainly one of the most refulgent Brahms symphony sets, in terms of orchestral sound and recording quality, that I’ve ever experienced. Simon Rattle has clearly forged a deep bond with the Berlin Philharmonic during his tenure, and the playing is never less than superb, with every section of the orchestra ideally responsive.

If any one aspect should be singled out it must be the horn-playing, both solo and as a body, which is gloriously expressive, most movingly of all throughout Symphony No. 2. Rattle and the recording engineers also consistently bring out the inner voices of Brahms’s polyphonic web in a way that few other versions do.

These performances must surely hammer the final nail into the coffin of the old but infuriatingly persistent notion that Brahms’s scoring is thick or unimaginative: it is precise and endlessly resourceful. Thirty years ago, hardly anyone took the first-movement repeats in Nos 1-3; now the practice is common, and rightly so: Brahms didn’t write those repeat-marks and first-time bars as a mere slave of convention. They mean something.

Rattle, with curious inconsistency, omits the repeats in Nos 1 and 2, but – perhaps because he feels the movement is short enough to take it – accepts it in No. 3. Interpretatively, it is No. 2 as a whole, and middle movements of No. 3, that strike me as unqualified successes. The Finale of No. 2 has a real quality of exaltation, and I have never heard the third movement of No. 3 more beautifully done. This was the Brahms Symphony that Elgar most admired, and Rattle’s approach here seems to take account of that affinity; there are spots in this movement that attain an almost mystical Elgarian quality.

No. 4 is sturdy and passionate, with the richness of sound that distinguishes the whole set, but I didn’t feel it was an outstanding interpretation. No. 1 strikes me as the least successful; the rhythms are sometimes insufficiently pointed and the tempos occasionally a shade off the ideal, causing, for instance, the big build-up to the first-movement recapitulation to sound ponderous rather than dramatic; and the coda to the whole work is somehow lacking in force despite the fullness of sonority.

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As in No. 3, the inner movements are the most sensitively interpreted portion. Although Rattle obviously outclasses him in sonics, I still feel that Abbado’s complete Brahms symphonies, with the same orchestra, remains the benchmark in terms of technical consistency and glowing humanity. Calum MacDonald