The first time I heard this recording I was in a parking lot. I had just turned the key in the ignition when all of a sudden this tremendous tidal wave of sound came pouring out of the radio. "What the %$!! is THAT??" I yelled. (Fortunately, the windows were up.) There was no question of driving anywhere. I literally couldn't move until the final chords had crashed over me. Well, "THAT" turned out to be John Eliot Gardiner conducting the last movement of the Brahms second.
I need to confess that I am not normally a fan of Brahms' second symphony. The first symphony with its beautiful interweaving themes and rich, deep sonorities is the one that has always claimed my heart. And no wonder - it took Brahms 15 years to write his first symphony. Once Brahms had gotten over his terror of writing the long form, the second symphony only took him a few months to churn out. For that reason, and others, Number 2 always seemed like the symphony that had to try harder, sort of like no-fat ice cream or "light" beer.
Since I couldn't trust what I'd heard at the Stop and Shop (after all, it could have been sun spots), I felt compelled to purchase the CD. When it arrived, I popped it into the machine, clicked ahead to the last movement, and sat down, prepared for disappointment. It only took one sforzando to have me leaping to my feet, wildly "air conducting" (the Classical equivalent of an "air guitar"). Oh, the passion of it! The fire! The incredible vitality!! It was like riding on a runaway train. When it was over, I listened to it again. I was hooked.
This is what Gardiner has done: he has restored the life to Brahms' light little pastoral symphony. The tradition of conducting this symphony with either a ten-ton baton (I'm not naming names here, but "Bern" and "Stein" figure prominently), or a metronome tick-tick-ticking in the background (no names! Bruno isn't really a name) has finally been laid to rest. By sticking to the original instrumentation, Gardiner has allowed the themes to come through with a clarity that up until now has been obscured by excessive bass. The horn section, which has been an embarrassment in several other recordings (again, no names, but Pittsburgh should really think about upgrading its brass section), was crisp, and clean. All the upper register instruments were favored in this recording, which allowed Brahms' playfulness and humor to come shining through. And never have I heard such finely crafted phrasing.
Last, but not least, this recording has what so many (just put any name here) have lacked - silence. Music cannot exist without silence, and Gardiner makes excellent use of dramatic breaks. Just listen to that first knock-your-socks-off sforzando of the last movement, the incredible rush of forward momentum created by taking rests seriously, and those final explosions of sheer punctuated fury and you will understand what I mean - or, better put, what Brahms meant.