Brahms: Symphony No. 4;

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Symphony No. 4; Haydn Variations, Op. 56a; Hungarian Dance No. 5
PERFORMER: Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach

These live performances have a real sense of occasion, reinforced by the audience’s enthusiastic applause, though according to the booklet details they were not part of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival but recorded at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo.
That electric atmosphere is perhaps their best claim for attention in field already over-crowded with recordings of these works.
There’s some excellent playing from the Festival Orchestra, but Eschenbach pulls the tempos around in the Fourth Symphony in a wilful-sounding manner, setting a basic tempo in the first movement that’s on the ponderous side and then introducing speed-ups, rallentandos and even dramatic luftpause (hiatuses) that would not have been out of place 100 years ago when they would have sounded more natural.
The inner movements are less capricious, with some wonderful string-playing in the Andante moderato, but the passacaglia-finale, though highly exciting in its baleful onward drive, is marred again by a couple of ritardandos, just where Brahms wants the music to surge ahead.   
The Haydn Variations is by contrast an admirably controlled reading, with some beautiful woodwind playing from the enunciation of the theme onwards; and the Hungarian Dance No. 5, evidently given as an encore, tears away straight out of the audience applause with tremendous verve and Schwung.
But this wouldn’t be my first choice for any of these works. In the Symphony, especially, there is so much competition from (to look no further) Kleiber, Abbado, Blomstedt, Walter, Karajan and Koussevitzky, not to mention the excellent budget-price version from Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony (Naxos).
Kleiber’s focused and passionate interpretation remains the benchmark here. Calum MacDonald