Of all the great Romantic symphonies I can think of no other for which I have so clear an idea of how I want to hear it played, and have yet to hear it done so. It makes me wish I could become a conductor, so I could just once hear this one marvellous work done `just so'. I came to it first through Harnoncourt's, Brahms: The Symphonies etc
, and have heard several others since. But none so far have hit that tingly spot in the pineal area, which I know to be there, in potentia, in this work, particularly in the glorious finale. After hearing another `not quite there' version a few evenings ago at a friend's, I decided to continue the hunt and give another version a try. I don't know any of Alsop's other work, but not being able to find any decisive reviews for this work, I decided that now would be as good a time as any to give a hearing to the first lady conductor to have really got herself out from under classical music's formidable glass ceiling.
First nag; the thing sounds at times like it's recorded from the foyer of an empty hall. Instrument separation is poor, and one must strain to distinguish particular instruments from the hazy orchestral sheen. The reverb does no favours to the overt polyphonic effects that are so decisive to the first movement. For this it gets 4.5 stars. It seems strange that so many decades since recording classical music began it can still be such a hit and miss affair.
So then, to the interpretation. I was not encouraged by the opening movement. The aching nostalgia, the lambent glow of the dying fires of love and life are there, but just a little too slow and age-dimmed, too sapped of urgency to satisfy what I myself was anticipating. Only towards the end, at the recapitualtion of the opening theme, is a fitful little spark of regret allowed to smoulder into anger, which fades, exhausted in the final passages. It occurs to me that, though my initial expectations were not met, there is s a compelling logic to this account, and one which I could become accustomed to.
The slow second movement with it's plodding opening, carefully building like a supremely logical argument, gave me none of the problems that the other reviewer encountered. Showing, I guess, how delicately the issues of taste and balance are stacked with this work. Similarly, I had absolutely no problems with the festive third movement, which no decent orchestra should be able to get wrong.
But the acid test is the fourth movement which, of them all, is the one that I have the clearest idea of how it should be, and have so far failed to find. Its rendering in actual sound aside, this movement is one I find to be a structural and conceptual marvel. Early on we have the annunciation of an undisguised quote from Bach, a well known theme taken from his Canata No.150. This invokes a corresponding answering theme from Brahms' which is then subject to an extended set of variations, until the culmination in which the Bach theme is restated, but with overwhelming power and grandeur. The sequence of variations is so sophisticated that it can take a few hearngs to realise that that's what it is. Though we never stray far from the home key, the harmonic and rhythmic treatment is so rich and diverse that there is no sense of stasis or repetition. The key to getting this work right for me is in managing the build-up to the grand restatement of the Bach theme, but above all in how the remaining passages which follow it are presented. There should be a visceral sense of dislocation as we fall abrubtly out of the world of glory which has been revelaed to us, back into the limitations of our mundane individuality. It seems so obvious to me, but that's never what I hear. So how does Marin do? She does very well. After the reservations engendered by the first movement I found that once into the build-up of the finale I noticed that my pulse was raised, and it occurred to me that I definitely had no regret about my purchase, sound niggles aside. And then the all important drop; she does it. Maybe not perfect, but I suspect perfection in realised sound is probably impossible. The world she drops us back into is a maixed one of dignity, loss and quiet but grudging acceptance. We have caught a glimpse of heaven, but know now that we must dwell forever in earthly exile. I am really impressed.
The Hungarian Dances included as filler are seven of the set of ten popular piano pieces that Brahms himself did not orchestrate, commissioned especially for this recording, from a chap named Peter Breiner. On the surface these are gaily flippant pieces that counterbalance the obvious gravity of the preceding symphony. However, amidst the abundant charm and wild flourish of these dances we recognise an undertow of the fatalism of the Hungarian national character, endowing the pieces with a subtle but reckless 'eat, drink and be merry' poignancy.