Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
WORKS: Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor; Fest- und Gedenksprüche’ Geistliches Lied; Beethoven: Coriolan Overture schütz Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? plus Bach: Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 – excerpts; Gabrieli: Sanctus and Benedictus a 12
PERFORMER: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; The Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: SDG 705

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John Eliot Gardiner’s Brahms cycle reaches its culmination in more ways than one. The intellectual penetration has never been in doubt, but the emotional engagement has varied.

Here, though, everything seems in focus: not just the tempo, but also the rhythmic drive and urgency seem absolutely right in the third and fourth movements – the finale ferociously tragic yet also exhilarating. But at no stage in this performance is there any feeling that the music is being ridden too hard. The first movement’s lyricism seems to go through so many character changes and flows organically. 

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique sound, too, seems especially suited to this symphony, which Brahms compared in character to the flavour of sour cherries. The conductor Bruno Walter remembered how the sound of Brahms’s orchestral music softened and ripened during his lifetime – originally it was much more lean, muscular and tart.

This performance gives a lively sense of what that authentic Brahms sound might have been like, and the music gains enormously – not an ounce of flab on these textures. 

The accompanying programme is also the most revealing of the series. Hearing the opening of the Symphony’s finale after Beethoven’s Coriolan establishes an unexpected connection right away, while the inclusion of the Bach Cantata from which Brahms derived his passacaglia theme makes perfect sense.

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Gardiner’s very Brahmsian arrangement of the Geistliches Lied may throw less of that kind of light, but it’s utterly gorgeous and will come as a revelation to many. Excellent recordings, as ever. Stephen Johnson