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Johannes BRAHMS (1933 - 1897)
Symphony #1 in c Op.68 (1876) [47.35]
Symphony #2 in D Op.73 (1877) [45.27]
Symphony #3 in F Op.90 (1883) [37.00]
Symphony #4 in e Op.98 (1885) [40.24]
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80 (1880) [10.26]
Tragic Overture, Op.81 (1881) [14.20]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op.56a (1873) [18.18]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded live in Philharmonie Hall, Berlin, Germany, April 1997
Notes in English, Deutsche, Français. Photos of conductor and composer.
TELDEC 0630-13136-2 [66.05+70.13+77.36]

Comparison Recordings
Brahms, Symphony #1, Charles Munch, BSO [ADD] BMG/RCA 7812-2-RV
Brahms, Symphony #2, William Steinberg, Pittsburgh SO [ADD] MCA D2-9817B
Brahms, Symphony #3, Fritz Reiner, CSO [ADD] BMG/RCA 09026-61793-2
Brahms Symphony #4, Charles Munch, BSO [ADD] BMG/RCA 09026-61206-2
Brahms Academic Festival Overture, Leopold Stokowski, New Philh. Orch. [ADD Surround Sound] BMG/RCA CD 09026-62514-2
Brahms Tragic Overture, Charles Munch, BSO [ADD] BMG/RCA 09026-60682-2

When these recordings were released to general acclaim I was not willing to be impressed even though at least one close friend thereafter expressed no further interest in new Brahms recordings since he had the Harnoncourt recordings and they were "all he would ever need." It was not until after I heard Harnoncourtís Schubert set that I realised that I had probably missed something really good, and set out to hear these. Iím glad I did.

The playing by the Berliners is of course first-rate, and the recording is everything we would expect from modern digital technology, not surprising in a hall which has been extensively used for recordings and is hence familiar to the engineers. The only difficulty I noticed was an occasionally blaring trumpet in a cadential chord. Why Harnoncourt or the engineer would allow that is not apparent. With any other orchestra, we would blame it on the pressure of a live recording, but we canít use that excuse with the Berliners who would certainly know better.

Harnoncourt mentions in the notes that the symphonies are generally played too loud, and what he does is to be very sparing with his fortissimos, using a more graded scale of dynamics than virtually any other conductor. This heightens the drama and makes the symphonies more transparent and listenable as well as more exciting.

Recordings of the Brahms Symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with its recent music director Claudio Abbado have been well received by some, however I have always found Abbadoís Brahms "smeary," that is lacking in incisiveness, rhythmic integrity, and drama, all qualities this Harnoncourt set has in abundance. And if your idea of perfect Brahms is slow and ponderous à la Otto Klemperer, you probably wonít like Harnoncourt either.

The first and third symphonies are magnificent classical structures punctuated with the most brutal and explicit orchestral depictions of bestial roars and shrieks, and these must be savage beyond pity if the performance is to succeed. Apparently Brahms used to howl and scream at the top of his lungs when improvising at the piano so itís no wonder. Harnoncourt achieves the requisite barbarity, except perhaps in the first movement of the Third where Reinerís growls are a little more threatening. In the Third Symphony Harnoncourt observes the first movement exposition repeat. He would probably be arrested if he didnít play it ó however, I do not approve, and Leopold Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Fritz Reiner agree with me. But I must say Harnoncourt is able to make more sense out of it than I have ever heard before.

It is in the Second Symphony that we clearly see how Brahmsí sense of rhythm is vastly better than Beethoven. A Beethoven symphony is constantly struggling to get up off the floor; a Brahms symphony barely touches the floor. Trying to dance to Beethoven will get you a sprained ankle and maybe a twisted knee, whereas trying not to dance to Brahms can cause one to destroy a chair. Brahms and Mendelssohn are alike in this, although Brahms was much more earthy than Mendelssohn who was more gentlemanly and sophisticated. Mendelssohnís music never screams, but Brahmsí does all the time. Also Mendelssohn and Brahms are both capable of geniality, even frivolity, in close proximity to drama and tragedy.

A recording of the Fourth Symphony stands or falls upon the flute solo in the last movement, where the flute stands in for all the pleading, hopeful, gentleness and innocence in the world. Steinbergís recording fails at this point, but Charles Munch, and even Maurice Abravanel and Antal Dorati ride through well with their respective flutists. The brutality of the following heroics blows all this away but leaves us with hope that somehow kindness has triumphed. Yet, even though the war is over, we are not completely sure who won, a feeling that the world was to become all too familiar with in the ensuing decades. No wonder many people prefer Beethoven where the good guys always win.

The notes are especially interesting, being a lengthy interview of Harnoncourt by Walter Dobner. The two discuss Brahmsí long agonising over producing his first symphony and then discuss influences, Harnoncourt mentioning that he feels the music of Schumann was a particularly strong influence on Brahmsí Symphonic style. Recognising that this brief essay was not intended to be an exhaustive study of the subject, still their attempt to list the major influences on Brahms leaves me bewildered at their overlooking the most obvious influence of all: Mendelssohn. Many bars of the Fingalís Cave Overture appear unmodified in the Tragic Overture (along with a deep drink of Götterdämmerung of course), the skipping violins from Midsummer Nightís Dream music are prominent in the Academic Festival Overture, and the Big Tune from Brahmsí First Symphony is almost identical to the Big Tune from Mendelssohnís Scottish Symphony, to say nothing about the structure of the movements in which they occur. I think it is obvious that it was Brahmsí becoming aware of Mendelssohnís Scottish Symphony that finally broke his symphonic deadlock by showing him a way out from the need to imitate Beethoven; how to be beautiful, strong, and profound without being tedious.

Also, they discuss the Second Symphony and its relatively geniality in comparison to the other three numbered symphonies, but neglect to compare it with the Serenades, where it fits right in as #3. Could the Serenades have been influenced by the Mendelssohn String Symphonies? I think Dobner and Harnoncourt need to have their talk all over again.

My previous favourite set of the Brahms Symphonies is listed in the comparisons above, but I think some changes will be made. Itíll take a little more listening to be sure, and Iím looking forward to it.

Paul Shoemaker

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