Following on from his acclaimed Beethoven symphony cycle, Riccardo Chailly www.riccardochailly.com and the Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig www.gewandhaus.de have turned their attention to Brahms. Decca www.deccaclassics.com/gb have just released a handsome new set of the Brahms symphonies together with the Tragic Overture, Haydn Variations and Academic Festival Overture. Also included are 9 Liebeslieder-Walzer, 3 Hungarian Dances, two Intermezzo from his Opp.116 and 117, as well as the revised opening to the fourth symphony and the first performance version of the Andante of the first symphony making the three well filled discs something of a Brahms feast.
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Chailly makes a purposeful start in the opening of the Un poco Sostenuto – Allegro with playing that is muscular, taut and flexible. He creates so much tension in the music. There is also great clarity, not only because of the fine recording, but from the way Chailly and the orchestra reveal the instrumental detail. It is remarkable the way he pushes the music forward yet allows the orchestration to be clearly revealed. His flexibility of tempi, moving from muscular playing to tender moments is superb.
A wonderful Andante Sostenuto, beautifully judged, allows the music to ebb and flow so naturally. The Gewandhausorchester are on glorious form producing some lovely sounds, with little brass details sounding through and some fine woodwind passages. There is a wonderfully fleet footed Un poco Allegretto e grazioso again with some lovely woodwind contributions. Brahms’ cross rhythms are so well handled and, at times, in this movement there is an enveloping mellowness to the Gewandhausorchester’s playing that is so appealing.
Well contained passion opens the Adagio – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, with wonderfully taut playing before the Allegro arrives. There are some lovely, long drawn horn phrases with Chailly getting it so right as he draws the music along. The more moderately paced passages aren’t allowed to drag and soon Chailly whips the music up as it leads to the final climax before a terrific coda.
Of all the symphonies of Brahms, this is the one that underwent the most revision after that first performance. The major revisions took place just before publishing in 1877 when the entire second movement was restructured. Brahms destroyed the score and orchestral parts of the original version, however, an extra set of string parts held in the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna www.a-wgm.com has enabled a reconstruction of the original Andante second movement which is included on Disc 3 of this set. Most listeners will soon notice the differences in this fascinating supplement to the first symphony performance.
Disc 1 continues with Brahms’ Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 where Chailly again hits the perfect tempo for the opening of the Allegro con brio – Un poco Sostenuto. As the music quietens he extracts such lovely, detailed playing from the Gewandhausorchester with musical phrases that are so beautifully turned. There are terrifically powerful string sounds and some great rubato
The winds of the Gewandhausorchester play superbly in the opening of the Andante as do the strings, so sonorous. As the music progresses there is a lovely freedom to their playing, taut yet free and a lovely glowing coda. In the Poco allegretto the strings of the Gewandhausorchester again show their terrific sonority with Chailly pointing up the details in the wind section. The Allegro has a terrific opening, full of anticipation before the orchestra suddenly erupts, truly joyful and triumphant. The magical coda is finely done.
The second disc in this set brings Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73 with rich flowing sounds from the Gewandhausorchester before the Allegro proper arrives. There are lovely pointed woodwind passages and more taut playing from this fine orchestra. The woodwind decoration is beautifully done and there are some lovely glowing passages. Chailly builds to some fine climaxes. It is wonderful how he keeps such a momentum whilst not glossing over the detail and poetry of the music.
What Chailly brings to what must be one of Brahms’ finest Adagios, is the ability to slowly allow the music to feel its way, creating a feeling of great anticipation. He can really whip up a storm, as in the central section, but can quickly move from taut drama to reflection so naturally. There are some magical moments in this movement and a great climax before the peaceful coda.
There is a lovely, almost relaxed, Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) with a rhythmic litheness is so appealing. Chailly has got Brahms’ precise tempo marking just right. Suddenly the Presto ma non assai arrives with superb articulation and precision, given a somewhat Mendelssohnian feel. The final movement brings a real Allegro con spirito. Chailly allows the quieter passages just enough room to breathe without losing momentum - quite wonderful. He also makes the most of Brahms’ string sonorities here, whilst keeping a light touch, as the music surges forward. And what a glorious coda – triumphant.
The Allegro non troppo of the Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98 opens with some lovely flowing string playing, slowly increasing in intensity with fine shaping of phrases. The quieter interludes help build the expectation, always purposeful, never flagging. There are so many little orchestral details that show through.
What a terrific Andante moderato there is, full of lovely sonorities in the gentle melody and some great, incisive playing at the central climax after which Chailly paces the slow down so well with another glowing coda. The Allegro giocoso shows the terrific ensemble from the Gewandhausorchester in this joyful and ebullient performance, full of energy, finely controlled.
How Chailly handles the tempi changes in the Allegro energico e passionato is remarkable, his control is wonderful, with the Gewandhausorchester playing with the flexibility and tautness of a small ensemble. Chailly really lets rip in this finale with superb playing, full of drama.
After completing the fourth symphony, Brahms added four bars of music as a prefix to the first movement Allegro, a typically Brahmsian wind chord that falls away into the opening music that we all know. Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester open this extract by playing the last few bars of the first movement followed by the alternative opening thus giving us a chance to compare the cadence that ends the movement that was reflected in the revised opening. Brahms was obviously not convinced about this new opening as it did not appear in the published edition.
It would be easy, after such wonderful performances of the symphonies, to overlook the works contained on the third disc of this set. As well as the original first performance version of the Andante to the first symphony there is a fine Tragic Overture, Op.81, full of drama, taut energy and fine detail and atmosphere, arguably one of the finest on disc; and a finely wrought Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80, to which Chailly brings real verve and some lovely brass timbres.
Two worthwhile shorter pieces, beautifully played, are included, the Intermezzo, Op. 116 No.4 (Adagio) with a lovely Brahmsian lilt and a warmly glowing account of the Intermezzo, Op.117 No.1 (Andante) both orchestrated by Paul Klengel (1854-1935)
Brahms’ Variations of a Theme of Joseph Haydn, op.56a (Variations on St. Antoni Chorale) highlight Chailly’s ability to move so naturally from one tempo to another as he does between the variations of this work. The Gewandhausorchester follow every nuance and turn with Chailly breathing life into the music.
There is a lovely interlude with eight of the Op.52 and one of the Op.65 Liebeslieder-Walzer in Brahms’ own orchestration, nicely shaped, some full of gentle charm and others, at times, bringing a darker depth as well as some terrific energy. It is Brahms’ own orchestration of three of his Hungarian Dances that conclude this magnificent set, superbly played, taut and full of panache.
This, in my view, is the finest Brahms symphony cycle to arrive for many years and must become a top recommendation. This generously filled set is superbly recorded in the Gewandhaus, Leipzig.
The three discs are contained in a bound CD size book with excellent booklet notes and illustrations that include photographs of the autograph full score of the first page of the fourth symphony and the last page of the first movement of that work, showing the revised opening.