Editor's Choice: Brahms Symphony No. 4

Gramophone, by Richard Osborne, 1 November 2010


First and foremost the brilliance of this release is in the imaginative programming. By giving us Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and healthy doses of Gabrieli, Bach and other Brahms, Gardiner shows us where the Fourth Symphony came from, the context of its birth. The performances themselves enshrine some superb playing in what must have been a riveting concert.

A well planned and compellingly performed live recording from Gardiner

Brahms's Fourth Symphony is possibly symphonic literature's finest distillation of the tragic spirit, though Beethoven's symphonically conceived Coriolan Overture is a comparable achievement in shorter form. Having both works buttressing the same programme is an arresting experience.

If the Fourth Symphony itself is an essay in self-consummation, so too is the life that effected its making. And it is this which John Eliot Gardiner's superbly planned 10-item programme so revealingly explores.

After the gauntlet has been thrown down by Coriolan, the story is taken up with music by two earlier composers from whom Brahms learnt his craft. Brahms included Giovanni Gabrieli's Sanctus and Benedictus and Schütz's scarifying brief psychodrama of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus in a concert with the Vienna Singakademie in 1864. Gardiner has examined Brahms's score for the occasion with its astutely pencilled markings. The Monteverdi Choir realises Brahms's vision to perfection; Brahms, alas, had neither the choir nor the audience with which to succeed with so radical an atiquarian project.

Movements follow from the Bach cantata whose subtly modified concluding chaconne provided the germ-cell for the symphony. From there we descend into the pool of quiet which is Brahm's own Geistliches Lied, a workshop essay in fashioning a double canon at the ninth which is also a vision of the peace which comes from the acceptance of God's will. Finally there are the three linked a cappella "festal and commemorative sentences" which post-date the symphony but which wonderfully complement it in their creative redepolyment of Baroque craft.

Gardiner's account of the symphony begins with a brisk and cleanly voiced account of the exposition, its literalness and flexibility nicely matched. Unusually for a period instrument performance, there is a finely developed use of legato here, even on occasion a hint of Viennese portamento.

What follows is a good deal more of a disjunct. The movement ends with a blazing account of the coda which out-Furtwänglers Furtwängler in the frenzy of the (unmarked) acceleration through the final 40 bars. The development, however, is skated over. The dolce, leggiero and sotto voce markings with which Brahms litters the score as the music moves through ever more remote tonal landscapes, are largely ignored. This is odd since the slow movement is beautifully done, the old instruments bringing out the music's quaint ballad-like quality to illuminating effect.

In the third-movement Allegro giocoso, the last to be written and taken here at a terrific lick, there is little sense of the epic revel Brahms had created. The finale, by contrast, is superbly done, Gardiner and his players bringing the symphony - and the cycle - to a compelling close.

There have been finer individual Fourths than this from the likes of Toscanini, Klemperer, Reiner, Karajan - and Carlos Kleiber leading a Vienna Philharmonic whose sound Brahms would still partly recognise. Yet there has never previously been a recording which so vividly magics the work out of its own private hinterland for our delectation and awe.