BRAHMS Symphony No. 4 • Stanis?aw Skrowaczewski, cond; German RP Saarbrücken Kaiserlautern • OEHMS 410 (41:36)
These two CDsRead more mark the completion of two cycles of the Brahms symphonies. Of the two albums, I’m drawn more to Simone Young’s. In large part this is due to the beauty of her orchestra’s playing. I am accustomed to regarding the North German Radio Symphony as the premier orchestra in Hamburg, but on this showing Young’s Hamburg Philharmonic proves itself to be a great ensemble. It may not be a super virtuoso orchestra, but it plays with tremendous musicality. It cultivates an old-fashioned, Central European sound that we rarely hear anymore. The first and second violins are divided left and right, clarifying antiphonal effects and contributing an overall sheen to the total sound. The strings in general possess that deep-in-the-string, woody tone Daniel Barenboim finds characteristic of German orchestras. The winds have a deep, mellow sonority. The oboe in particular plays with a wide, dark sound not found outside of Germany. The brass playing is warm and beautifully blended. Simone Young’s interpretations play to the strengths of her orchestra, offering Brahms of tremendous lyric beauty and a mature sensibility. I am reminded of the great pre-war recordings of these symphonies by Bruno Walter, especially the 1936 Vienna Philharmonic account of the Third, which enshrines much of the type of orchestral color that Young cultivates. Simone Young’s Brahms is striking, lovingly played by the composer’s hometown orchestra, and deeply satisfying in its artistic aesthetic.
Young takes the exposition repeat in the opening movement of the Third Symphony. She portrays here the soul of the Romantic wanderer. This movement is a passage to enlightenment, as in a Bildungsroman. The next movement is a self-portrait of the composer, in its lightness a pencil sketch rather than an oil painting. Young treats the third movement as a nocturne. Does its sense of yearning depict Brahms thinking about Clara Schumann? The last movement represents the composer’s confrontation with destiny and his ultimate reconciliation to it. This movement in form is the closest Brahms comes to writing a Tchaikovsky tone poem. Young’s Fourth Symphony overall is more ominous than her Third. The first movement almost constitutes a learned essay about life’s challenges. Young lets Brahms be didactic here, even a little pedantic at moments. The slow movement is the inverse to the first, representing the philosopher alone with his thoughts. His reflections veer from the cosmic to the mundane. The third movement in Young’s hands is exuberant, but with a sense of urgency. The concluding movement is very much a meditation on last things. It’s the nearest Brahms ever came to writing music for the Day of Judgment. The sound engineering on the CD layer is exceptionally fine for a live recording. I was unable to hear the surround program. I think Young’s album belongs in the top rank of Brahms recordings.
Stanis?aw Skrowaczewski’s Brahms Fourth also is a substantial achievement, although quite different than Young’s. His orchestra, the German Radio Philharmonic of Saarbrücken Kaiserlautern, produces a dark yet modern sound. In the first movement, Skrowaczewski takes more than a minute longer than Young, but does not seem slow. This is Brahms in his autumnal mood; you almost can hear the leaves changing color; it’s a Keatsian autumn, mellow and fruitful. There is a parallel here between the seasons of the year and the seasons of life. At age 51, Brahms seems to be taking stock of himself. The slow movement possesses an Olympian quality of repose, as if depicting the gods at rest. The music is characterized by a noble serenity. Brahms’s gods are not Teutonic like Wagner’s but rather more Grecian, concerned with beauty and purity of form. In the third movement, we get Jovian humor; Skrowaczewski’s rendition is truly Giocoso. His final movement takes over a minute and a half longer than Young’s. He explores in this passacaglia the world of Bach, austere and transfigured in expression. In particular, we find Brahms coming to terms with the later works of Bach, notably The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue. Here Brahms stakes his claim to be both a traditionalist and the modernist so valued by Schoenberg. The CD’s sound engineering is excellent, clean, warm, and transparent. Skrowaczewski always is a conductor whose interpretations repay repeated study, and his Brahms Fourth is no exception.
Of the classic stereo recordings of these symphonies, I’m most drawn to Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia in the Third and Antal Doráti and the London Symphony in the Fourth. Other digital recordings I like are the Third by Colin Davis with the Bavarian Radio Symphony and the Fourth by Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic. If you still listen to LPs, the stereo records by Eugene Ormandy offer central interpretations delivered with thrilling playing. Young and Skrowaczewski both have added noteworthy accounts to the Brahms discography. If I prefer Young, it is because of the uniqueness of the concept and total execution of her performances. Her achievement is to make us listen to Brahms with fresh ears through old-fashioned means.
Symphony no 4 in E minor, Op. 98by Johannes Brahms Conductor:
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbruecken Kaiserslautern
Period: Romantic Written: 1884-1885; Austria
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98: I. Allegro non troppo
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98: II. Andante moderato
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98: III. Allegro giocoso
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98: IV. Allegro energico e passionato
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