A gorgeous Fourth, a welcome addition to the huge Brahms recorded repertory.
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in e; MACMILLAN: Larghetto for Orchestra – Pittsburgh Symphony/ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings Fresh! multichannel SACD FR744SACD, 54 minutes *****:
One wonders what Brahms, only a year after the completion of his Third Symphony, was thinking when conducting the first performance of Symphony No. 4 in 1885. After interminable delays, the composer finally embarked on a true symphonic experiment when producing Symphony No. 1. A year later, No. 2 appeared, less magnificent than the first but very appealing though some critics balked. Six years then passed before No. 3 arose, and finally, No. 4, not premiered in Vienna like the Third, but in Meiningen. There was slow but steady acceptance by the public of his symphonic corpus. Brahms, seen as the inheritor of the Beethoven tradition, was haunted by the man for years. After he got the first effort out of his system, confidence gained, though each work seemed so different. Numbers one through four were looked upon in succession as “grand”, “charming” (but a letdown for some), “perfect”, and “greatest”.
Certainly, the last movement of the Fourth Symphony is the orchestral pinnacle of the age in relation to the variation form. The composer was long known as a master of variations, and even now one is hard-pressed to come up with a better example of any type in the genre. It is this last movement to which the entire symphony is directed, and its success depends on how well the previous movements are balanced. The third movement in particular is difficult to place in the scheme of things; it was the last to be composed and taken alone it hardly seems relevant to the other sections, though there are some subtleties that link it with the last movement. But the tenor is so boisterous and larger than life, a lesser performance can overshadow Brahms’s rather delicate schematic design. Many conductors try to overplay the movement, and make it far too grandiose, which gives it a finale-type emphasis.
Eugen Jochum does this in his otherwise fine effort with the London Philharmonic, as if desperately trying to offer the listener some respite after the first two rather somber movements. Walter, Karajan, and Kleiber are more sober in their approach. Honeck goes out of his way to tell us that this is after all, a kind of limping scherzo (sans trio) and needs to be heard like that, a break in the overall gloomy seriousness with what is, after all, historically, a joke.
It works well. And it contrasts beautifully with what we hear at the opening of the symphony, a deep-breathed sigh that starts everything off. Honeck lingers over this moment, one that Carlos Kleiber said he could not conduct—though he said that about a lot of passages in many different pieces—and yet Honeck’s opening is more effective. Oddly, though Honeck professes great admiration for Kleiber, Kleiber’s recording, while superb in many ways, is not among his most successful efforts (which are generally amazing). Honeck seems more in line with the vision of Karajan, one of Kleiber’s idols. Such are the vicissitudes of conducting legacies! But what Karajan lacked in this music—a sense of genuine empathy and feeling, even though it is beautifully played—Honeck delivers in spades. The variations movement is also perfectly paced with lots of contrasts highlighted and not just wound up and let go. Perhaps only Bruno Walter can top this Fourth, as Walter is the gold standard in this music. But even here, the crispness and delineated phrasing that are the hallmarks of Walter’s Brahms are also found in this recording, a manicured spectacle of incredible beauty.
Most people, when they know at all, might recognize Scottish composer James Macmillan for his early Veni, Veni, Emanuel, a percussion concerto that premiered in 1992. News flash—he has done a lot more since then and has become one of the most sought-after composers in the world. And with good reason. His music is quite varied, with little in the way of philosophical musical underpinning (though quite a bit of religious ones) and is generally quite accessible to the classical masses. The Larghetto for Orchestra is a reworking of his 2009 Miserere, a choral work. Macmillan decided that the piece had instrumental proclivities within it, and fashioned this somewhat somber, though ultimately life-affirming piece for the celebration of Manfred Honeck’s tenth season as conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. It is a fine piece, well worth hearing, and quite moving.
The sound, captured to perfection by the sound/mirror miracles in marvelous Super Audio, is wonderful, brilliantly detailed, warm, and illuminating when the moment calls for it. My only complaint—I would have loved to have some more music as the timing is a little abbreviated. But lo and behold, when I listen to it, I tend to forget about such things.
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