Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies Nos. 3
Vladimir Jurowski, cond; London PO
LPO 75 (76:22) Live: London
This disc completes Jurowski’s Brahms cycle; the first two symphonies were issued on LPO 43, which I haven’t heard. Judging from this disc, however, I’m sorry I missed it. Jurowski doesn’t
quite go for the sweep and drama one hears in the recordings of Stokowski, Toscanini (Philharmonia), or John Axelrod, but his pacing does not drag and his phrasing is extraordinarily interesting, introducing all sorts of little rubato touches that make these performances more than just a romp through the notes. Jurowski understands the meaning of
and knows how to use them; they almost sound like (good) German performances from the 1930s, e.g., young Klemperer, Bruno Walter, or Fritz Busch. And it’s almost magical to have these kinds of “throwback” performances in such marvelous, pristine digital sound. Bottom line: In today’s atmosphere of a more literal reading of scores, performances like these may be considered old-fashioned by some, and to me they are not necessarily “home ground,” but I found them fascinating and valid, and the LPO plays their hearts out on them.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 31 & 42 • Vladimir Jurowski, cond; London PO • LPO 75 (76:22) Live: London 110/27/2010, 25/28/2011
Here is the conclusion to Vladimir Jurowski’s live Brahms symphony cycle with the London Philharmonic. The First and Second symphonies were reviewed in 33:6. That coupling, unfortunately, exceeded the capacity of a single CD by only two or three minutes, necessitating a second disc. But then there aren’t many recordings I know of that manage to pair the first two symphonies on a single CD without sacrificing repeats, Neville Marriner with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Hänssler being the only one I can think of off the top of my head.
My review of Jurowski’s First and Second was mixed. There were a couple of things in particular that put me off the conductor’s reading of the First Symphony. One was his unorthodox approach to the opening Un poco sostenuto, which was accelerated to the point of matching the tempo of the ensuing Allegro; and the other was what I referred to as Jurowski’s “Mozartification” of Brahms, an approach I likened to period-instrument performances of late-19th-century music that are more appropriate to music of the late 18th century. In contrast, Jurowski’s reading of the Second Symphony had real warmth and a feeling of Gemütlichkeit to it that I really liked, and which occasioned a strong recommendation.
No such recommendation, I’m afraid, is forthcoming from me for this Brahms Third. Jurowski leads the symphony as if it were a sequel to Brahms’s Second. The two opening chords are lengthened, as if they had fermatas over them, and the comfortable tempo Jurowski settles into for the remainder of the first movement is barely Allegro, let alone the Allegro con brio Brahms calls for. The London Philharmonic’s woodwinds sing contentedly in an Arcadian aviary, disturbed only now and then by a gust of ill wind that ruffles their feathers. But Jurowski takes a few too many liberties with ritards, tempo adjustments, and stretching of note values, resulting in a reading that ultimately sounds choppy and episodic. I would add, however, that the third movement is beautifully done, capturing perfectly the passionate Gypsy song that simmers just beneath its surface and the London Philharmonic has never sounded better.
Jurowski obviously hears Brahms’s Fourth Symphony as a much warmer and more affable work than I do, so perhaps this is just a matter of subjectively differing interpretive opinions. But take the second movement, for example. The insistent emphasis on F?, the lowered second degree in the key of E, turns the music towards the Phrygian scale, a point echoed in the famous passacaglia chord progression on which the fourth movement is based. The introduction of Medieval modes, either whole or in part, into music of the tonal era, is not something Brahms patented. Beethoven based the “Heiliger Dankegesang” movement from his op. 132 String Quartet on the Lydian mode. Bruckner, too, was fond of modal machinations. His eight-part choral motet Os justi is entirely in Lydian, and his Sixth Symphony juxtaposes Phrygian against the score’s nominal key of A Major.
But there’s something special about Phrygian. It was the mode of mourning, the one used most often during the Middle Ages for settings of the Latin Requiem Mass; and the second movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, in all but name, is a funeral march. The rhythm should be articulated with a treading regularity and with even a slight separation between the notes. For 29 bars, the strings play only pizzicato punctuation to the rigid marching steps in the woodwinds and brass. The music is cold, distant, and implacable, frozen in a rictus of despair. It’s only at bar 40, where the strings finally enter arco that a sudden glow of light and warmth comforts the mourners and suffuses the score with an overwhelming feeling of tenderness and compassion.
Jurowski’s mistake, in my opinion, is not to make that contrast. His first 29 bars are so smooth and legato, his woodwind and brass choirs so homogenously blended, and his rhythmic articulation so relaxed and paved-over that there’s no sense of the striking change in texture and mood that should suddenly rush over the listener at bar 30 like a warm, sensuous, and sensual wave. Again, however, I can’t fault the playing of the London Philharmonic’s musicians, which is absolutely gorgeous. I just don’t agree with Jurowski’s vision of this symphony. He seems to see it, as he does the Second and Third symphonies too, as a kind of pastoral serenade. I, on the other hand—and many agree with me—see Brahms’s Fourth Symphony not as just a deeply tragic work but one which, in its final rejection of the possibility of redemption, extinguishes all hope and with it, life itself.
Brahms’s pattern of juxtaposed pairs is well-known. A work in a given form expressing one complement of emotional states is soon followed by a second work in the same genre expressing a contrasting complement of emotional states. Thus we have two overtures, the Academic Festival and the Tragic; two sextets, two serenades, two string quintets. The symphonies—Nos. 1 and 2 and Nos. 3 and 4—stand in similar antipodal relationships to each other.
In a fantastic article by conductor Kenneth Woods, titled Explore the Score—Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E Minor—Woods begins with a quote from Hans Gál’s Johannes Brahms—His Work and Personality: “But in dark, dramatic outbursts such as those in the first and last movements of his Fourth Symphony, something apocalyptically grandiose and superhuman takes place. He had outgrown the passionately romantic extravagance of subjectivity; free from illusions, he could now face the world from the remote viewpoint of a stoic, without illusions and without self-pity.”
Woods delves deep into the score itself and into the psychology of the composer who wrote it, observing, “On the surface, the Fourth seems the most Beethovenian Brahms symphony since the First, and yet Brahms was making a statement, devastating in its finality, that marked a complete departure from Beethoven’s absolute insistence that the answer to the fundamental symphonic question must always be ‘yes’.”
Woods continues, “The Fourth was a summation of Brahms’s work as a symphonist, in which his obsessions with unity, clarity, balance and proportion all found their culmination. For much of the 20th century, conductors of Brahms’s music favored sonority over all else, which has often left his rhythmic innovations overlooked. In the case of the Fourth, that is a great pity. Brahms’s is taking the rhythmic possibilities of the Romantic-era musical language to an extreme of sophistication and complexity that is perhaps unique. One passage in the first movement is so rhythmically multi-layered that composer Gunther Schuller says of it that ‘there is nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring’.”
Brahms’s Fourth is not the first documented case of a 19th-century symphony that ends in minor, but it’s certainly the first to end with such crushing, catastrophic finality. I think this is the general consensus view of the work shared by most listeners and commentators, but I’m not sure it’s a view with which Jurowski is completely onboard. I will admit that his handling of the last movement is very effective. Those snarling timpani trills and pizzicato exclamation points on the offbeats of each bar beginning in measure 9 are really malevolent. For the whole of the Finale, in fact, I’d give Jurowski an A+. But too much in the earlier movements speaks with too gentle and kindly a voice for this to be rated a top performance. There are, of course, many fine recordings to choose from, but one in particular that’s a must for anyone serious about this symphony is the one by Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on EMI, reviewed in 28:4.
Personally, I’d have to say that Jurowski’s vision of Brahms doesn’t quite jibe with my own, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or that you may not find it nicely suited to your own taste. Moreover, this is some of the best playing I’ve heard from the London Philharmonic in a while, so even if just as a showcase for the orchestra this really brilliant recording deserves a recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Johannes Brahms
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1883; Austria
Venue: Live Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall,
Length: 35 Minutes 8 Secs.
Symphony no 4 in E minor, Op. 98 by Johannes Brahms
Written: 1884-1885; Austria
Venue: Live Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall,
Length: 39 Minutes 48 Secs.
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