BRAHMS: The Four Symphonies; Overtures – Gewandhausorchester/ Riccardo Chailly – Decca (3-CDs)

by | May 28, 2014 | Classical CD Reviews

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68; Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 (and rev. opening); Tragic Overture, Op. 81; Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80; Haydn Variations, Op. 56a; 9 Liebeslieder Walzer (orch. Brahms); Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 4 (orch. Klengel); Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 1 (orch. Klengel); 3 Hungarian Dances; Symphony No. 1: Andante: (Original first performance version) – Gewandhausorchester/ Riccardo Chailly – Decca 478 5344 (3-CDs) 78:17, 79:00, 76:47 [Distr. by Universal] (10/7/13) ****:

Italian maestro Riccardo Chailly (b. 1953), having led his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra through a Beethoven cycle, turns his attention once more (rec. May 2012 – May 2013) to the symphonic repertory of Johannes Brahms, claiming that he intends to correct excesses in interpretation and “blotches” in the scores for which the Gewandhaus tradition remains partly responsible. Chailly’s direct model lies in the performance practice and recordings bequeathed us by Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) who, somewhat in concord with Toscanini, took a clear, linear, literalist path to these monuments.

The 1876 C Minor Symphony, in spite of the first movement repeat, moves briskly and sweetly, minimizing the “pathetic” elements in favor of interior lyricism and clarity of orchestral detail. The girth of the drama remains, but the “temptation to profundity” has been eschewed in favor of graduated architecture.  Having fixed the interior pulsation of the first movement, the momentum literally carries itself forward, presenting us with a palpable sense of aesthetic closure. The taut lightness of the strings in the coda has the insistent and fateful beat of the tympani to define the tragic muse. That same fate motif appears momentarily at the opening of the Andante sostenuto, which here receives an incandescently thoughtful reading.  Disc 3 provides us with the rarest of Brahms artifacts, his working model for the Andante he discarded, some 32 measures shorter and containing five entirely unfamiliar bars of music. Brahms had conceived the movement as a five-section rondo in brief episodes, but conductor Hermann Levi convinced the composer that such a structure seemed more appropriate to a serenade.

Interior wind chortles and string sighs mark this refreshed version of the Un poco Allegretto whose five-bar phrases fuse romantic feeling with an instinctive need for structural symmetries. With the titanic last movement – Adagio. Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – utilizing the patented principle of developing variation, Chailly imposes a stern, laconic pillar of sound at first that evolves into the ‘hymn’ theme and its well-wrought, often contrapuntal development.  If we occasionally imbibe a sound not so distant from Bruckner in the lyrically “pious” musical proceedings, Chailly assures us that the allusions remain intentional.

The 1883 F Major Symphony opening Allegro con brio states the decisive three-note motto theme that resonates throughout the entire work, so Chailly repeats the first measures as an upbeat to the inevitable architecture that follows, a major-minor fusion of competing lyrical and dramatic forces. Rarely have we been so alerted to the presence of the French horn as an arbiter of color in this first movement, which also takes the repeat. Having scaled down the Romantic histrionics, Chailly permits the instrumental interplay and rhythmic subtleties their due. Dvorak saw the music as “imbued with love. . .it truly melts the heart!” Along with the obvious allusions to Beethoven, the symphony likely stands as an extended, dramatic love-letter to Clara Schumann, given the number of Schumann quotations that condense around the F-A-F motif. The consistent, lyrical persuasiveness of this Chailly performance convinces us of its authenticity – especially in the mesmerizing Andante – and often heroic verve.

Chailly first and foremost retains the eminently sunny disposition of the 1877 Symphony No. 2 in D Major, its motto D-C#-D having from the outset provided the kernel or ground material for the composer’s developing sense of variation. Again, even amidst the gentle flow of melodic tissue, Chailly takes the oft-ignored repeat in the Allegro non troppo, allowing us to savor the nice balance of strings, French horn, and tympani. The lovely secondary theme in the cellos enjoys a transparent veil of sound, much in the tradition of Bruno Walter and Eduard van Beinum, without distorted pathos, the flute work in curlicue floridly resonant. The presence of three trombones bodes some dark moments, but these too as into gracious harmony. 

The Adagio Brahms presents in this work is the one true such exercise of the form at the stated tempo. The cellos set the melody proper, countered by a lighter melody in the woodwinds.  Chailly adjusts the time signatures and instrumental balances to capture the often weighty power of this magnificent meditation. Chailly approaches the Allegretto grazioso as a stylized German laendler that evolves into a spirited scherzo that exerts colors polyphonically.  The playing projects sizzle and wit. The Allegro con spirito manipulates the three-note motif of symphony’s opening, having after a crashing forte moved forward with relentless energy (in sonata form) to a trombone-heralded triumph in D Major, lithely and forthrightly led by Chailly.

The stately, elegiac E Minor Symphony (1885) fuses several of the composer’s structural obsessions, namely his fascination with ascending and descending scales (especially in thirds) , variations, sonata form, and antique forms like the chaconne and the passacaglia.   Chailly affixes to the third disc the post-completion four bars – subsequently discarded – that precede the conventional opening of the work, marked by modal progressions from A Minor to a plagal E Minor marked by pizzicato that dissolve into the ubiquitous descending third.  The revisionist approach to the Brahms instrumental textures opens the contrapuntal activity in the opening movement to closer scrutiny and sonic revelation.

Chailly takes a broad tempo for the Phrygian Andante moderato, allowing the extending melodic line to savor the open-instrumentation from horns and winds over the pizzicato strings. After a vigorous Allegro giocoso (aka scherzo) painted in affectionate colors that highlight the Gewandhaus triangle, brass and tympani, Chailly can nestle into the Allegro energico e passionate, taken at its literal best. The steady pulse serves as a silken thread for the series of individual color variants, with no sag in the emergent singing line. The cumulative effect bears the marks of a glorious enterprise, embracing heart and mind in well-wrought urn of epic proportions.

Disc 3 contains the orchestral odds-and-ends we have always associated with the Brahms orchestral oeuvre, the two 1880 overtures and the Haydn Variations.  The Tragic Overture in D Minot casts its sullen gravitas in appropriately Beethoven terms, though Chailly hustles it along without pedantic heaviness. Good work from the Gewandhaus trombones over throbbing strings that leads to the French horn and the main melody. The tumultuous portions of the score under Chailly often point to contrapuntal aspects of the F Major Symphony. Chailly’s brisk affection for the Academic Festival Overture imbues this college-bound romp and medley with both character and frothy impetus.

The Hungarian DancesNo. 1 in G Minor; No. 3 in F Major; No. 10 in F Major – are those Brahms himself orchestrated, and each moves surefooted in canny gypsy colors. Paul Klengel, brother of cellist Julius Klengel of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, gave symphonic treatment to the two Intermezzi featured in this assemblage.  The E Major, Op. 116, No. 4 hangs suspended in autumn colors; the “lullaby” Op. 117, No. 1 in E-flat Major remains sweet, but the cotton-candy approach makes it sound like a Eugene Ormandy encore. The Haydn Variations serve Chailly and his orchestra well as a transition exercise between the composer’s serenades and the massive C Minor Symphony as well as the passacaglia of the Fourth. The brass add winds, given Chailly’s light hand, make us think that Brahms simply extended the Classical cassation by invoking more contrapuntal, inflated means.  The Grazioso variation, a charming siciliano, proves captivating. After the “academic” lights of the Variations, we venture into the 1870 orchestration by Brahms of his Love-Song Waltzes, both Viennese and gypsy romps in congenial spirits. These setting only found long-delayed publication in 1938.

Lastly, we have the alternative version of the Andante of the First Symphony, performed just as Brahms scored it, with ten first and eight second violins. And four violas, cellos and double basses. The oboe comes in early, and Brahms develops the melody almost without preliminaries, with a harmonization that suspends the pulse over the bar lines. In fact, the melodic lines appear truncated, running into each other with little transition, resembling both young Dvorak and Bruckner. No wonder conductor Levi considered this movement more suited to a serenade!  But to look, even briefly, into the Brahms creative process constitutes a rare moment to any serious collector of this composer’s earnest thoughts.

—Gary Lemco

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