Thomas Hengelbrock conducts Brahm’s Symphonies Nos 3 & 4

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COMPOSERS: Johannes Brahms
LABELS: Sony Classical
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 3 and 4
PERFORMER: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra/Thomas Hengelbrock
CATALOGUE NO: 88985405082


It was ten times over budget and six years late, but the story of Hamburg’s 789 million euro Elbphilharmonie is already modulating into a major key. Perched atop a waterfront warehouse, this tiered, 21st-century re-imagining of a Berlin Philharmonie, lined with a coral-like ‘skin’ of individually moulded gypsum fibre panels, received rave reviews at its opening.

That first concert by Thomas Hengelbrock and the Elbphilharmonie (formerly NDR Symphony Orchestra) imaginatively showcased the possibilities of the space, so it’s disappointing to find two Brahms Symphonies on its first recording, important as Hamburg’s son may be. Following hard on the heels of Simon Rattle’s vivid live recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, and Riccardo Chailly’s richly radiant set with the Gewandhaus (Decca), Hengelbrock faces stiff competition. He sacrifices a degree of tension in Brahms’s dynamic cut-and-thrust for long, simmering vocal lines: we certainly learn the hall allows for great spaciousness and subtle bloom. In the Third Symphony the Andante has a wonderful still serenity, winds and horn glow and strings drape the melody with silken texture. A heavy poco allegretto takes a while to find its flow.

The Fourth starts with the woodwind chords Brahms cut before its publication (though their haunting reappearance at the first movement’s end gives a satisfying sense of circularity). The roiling sea of lower strings which follows, light-flecked and immediate with the Gewandhaus, is here more diffuse, the string sound thinner and sourer. Descending pizzicato exchanges in this movement reveal a generous resonance with plenty of bass, though middle and bass textures are vague. As this Allegro reaches its apotheosis, the storm of strings just misses the requisite cohesion to deliver full force. Similarly in an exuberant scherzo we miss that bustling bright crispness, and the finale of the Fourth never quite achieves hurtling excitement.


Helen Wallace