BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16 – Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Iván Fischer – Channel Classics CCS SA 43821 (4/3/21) 68:13 [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
The ambiguous energies of the Brahms 1883 Third Symphony first came to me via Bruno Walter, who nurtured its Viennese traits for lyricism and muscular drama, with its last movement evocations of the Beethoven Fifth. Brahms sets his motion with a constant shift between A natural and A-flat, so that the work’s opening, Allegro con brio, cannot quite decide on the key as F Major or F Minor, despite the motto F-A-F, that is supposed to point us to frei aber froh, “free but happy,” in a manner reminiscent of Schumann’s anagrams. Iván Fischer, too, realizes the music as an emotional tug of war between optimistic and dire impulses, classical restraint and romantic ardor or agony, as is the case. At times more marcato in his tempo than for my liking, Fischer also injects great, passionate girth into the performance, as the first movement repeat and his yearning coda to the C Major second movement, Andante, testify. Clara Schumann herself recognized the emotional unity of the symphony, calling it “of one piece, one beat of the heart.’
The C Minor Poco allegretto in 3/8 has that romantic and waltz-like, elegiac beauty that belies the notion of Brahms as a mere purveyor of academic formalism. Fischer’s cellos and solo French horn convey much of the Black Forest in their warm evocations of bucolic consolation. Fischer makes a point in his opening of the last movement, Allegro, to capture the F Minor tonality in its Phrygian coloration. If the cyclical impulse from the Andante’s theme were not enough to signal the Brahms penchant for internal unity, he beckons the rhythmic kernel of the Beethoven Fifth to seal his reliance on a pervasive economy of musical means. The dissipation of the opening theme of the symphony into quietly sedate, “Wagnerian” Rhine figurations says something of the Brahms capacity for novelty as well as substantive transformation.
Fischer complements his late symphonic work with the second of the Serenades, that in A Major, Brahms wrote between 1859-1860, scoring his five-movement Op. 16 for woodwinds and low strings without violins, a foil to his sunny D Major Serenade of 1858. At the court of Detmold, the capital of the Lippe principality, Brahms had his first real access to symphonic forces in his long and arduous, personal journey to symphony writing. The scoring for relatively modest forces invokes comparisons with Haydn and Mozart divertimentos and cassations. The Brahms formula of triplets in duple meter makes its presence felt, Allegro moderato, in Fischer’s warm ensemble. Kudos to the Budapest Festival oboe for a sweet transition back to A Major.
The ensuing Scherzo: Vivace, quite makes us think Dvorak has penned this virile, three-minute ball of energy. Do we recognize that Brahms chooses his A Minor slow movement, Adagio non troppo, to take the antique form of a passacaglia based on his first movement theme? The music retains its lyricism, even in the midst of its polyphonic erudition, a feat Brahms will repeat much later in his Fourth Symphony. The music will have moved into the relative C Major while establishing this dark nocturne as the heart of the matter. The D Major fourth movement Brahms marks as Quasi menuetto, perhaps a moment of irony in opposition to its duple meter. A touch of Romantic mystery pervades the Fischer realization of this haunted music, which first impressed me under the baton of Arturo Toscanini in a live broadcast. The collaboration of oboe and low strings here from Fischer proves admirably captivating. The last movement, a robustly virile hunting motif, Rondo: Allegro, makes the piccolo and oboe join the violas and winds for a gallop interspersed with touches of nostalgia. By way of historical context, Clara Schumann became enamored of the third movement to play it in her own piano arrangement. You might find yourself doing much the same by way of this recording, lovingly produced by Jared Sacks.