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Chailly's Progressive Brahms
on 7 October 2013
Some people think that Brahms was an unfeeling reactionary. With his beard, paunch and pipe, he certainly looks anything but cut and thrust. Schoenberg, on the other hand, called him the 'progressive'. And it's in that radical spirit that Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig perform his finest orchestral works on this new three-disc set.
Chailly puts into action what he describes as Brahms's 'new universe of sound', the complexity of which 'is even above Mahler and Bruckner'. Certainly Chailly is keen to let us hear those layers, though he's also unstinting in delivering real emotion impact. This is Brahms the true Romantic and the proto-Modernist.
It is well known that Brahms struggled even to start his First Symphony, let alone complete it, so haunted was he by the enormity of following in Beethoven's footsteps. He eventually overcame those doubts and instead flaunted the Austro-Germanic symphonic heritage in the C minor-major dialectic of the work. Following their own recent survey of Beethoven, Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester bring fresh attack to Brahms's homage. Chailly errs on the fast, though it pay dividends. Underpinned by tenacious timpani, the first movement presents a gripping struggle.
The middle movements are naturally more relaxed, though the first movement's tenacity comes through again in the chorale in the Andante and the third movement's budding premonitions of glory. Answering that foretaste, the Finale does not disappoint. Following a full-voiced horn call - with more than a dose of Siegfried - the C major theme has both nobility and resolve (so different from Jansons' recent back-footed approach). Throughout we're treated to lavish sound and gritty determination which then boil over in a thrilling coda.
The beginning of the Second Symphony will always appear more mute than its predecessor, yet the Gewandhausorchester's performance is no wallflower. The strings bring real snap to dotted rhythms, as well as beautiful line, with exquisite woodwind solos and richly voiced brass choruses. Chailly's constant attention to dynamic detail reaps further emotional rewards, while the crescendos show the strength of purpose that was evident in the First Symphony.
That force brims to the surface again in the Adagio, pushing towards a brisker Andante, before Chailly and the orchestra offer release in the graceful-cum-spirited third movement. Upping the theatrical ante again, Chailly begins the Finale with a daring whisper, laying the groundwork for later thrills, which deliver a baroque sense of occasion.
There's equal grandness and import about the way in which Chailly opens the Third Symphony - perhaps the finest performance in the set - imbuing its string arpeggios and clarinet flourishes with real panache. But there's heart here too, coming through in the lower strings' intense minor melody. More hesitant emotions characterise the slow movement, before these again build to something more potent. Some may prefer a more relaxed reading, though Chailly's zeal is certainly infectious.
More apposite to Chailly's emotional approach is the third movement, where the orchestra delivers each suspension like a painful memory. The little breaths and hesitations in the reprise of the Allegretto particularly tell, before the forces launch into a particularly staggering performance of the Finale - all barbed syncopations and staggering trumpet salvos - boiling over with thrilling ferocity, trumping even the most conflicted passages of the First Symphony. But there's hope here too and after Chailly has driven a particularly fierce bargain, that optimism weaves through the rapt coda.
At first that tension appears to have abated in the Fourth Symphony, feeling a little on the hasty side, leaving us unsure as to whether this performance will embrace both the Romantic and the Bachian. The strings are as lustrous as in any of the other Symphonies, but you may wander whether a little more space here and the frisson Abbado brings to the return of the first subject would reap more significant insights. Here Chailly's instincts don't feel completely right.
The tenderness and emotional truths of the other performances in this set, however, emerge again in the Andante, not least in the cello's heart-on-sleeve theme, performed with great warmth. And the third movement is a real riot of orchestral colour, proffering a wonderful trigger to the Finale, where the tensions Chailly has so keenly maintained across the cycle are born out in the struggles and glories of the Passacaglia.
Here we are given both sense of purpose and something more heart-rending, building to a tumultuous conclusion. The journey undertaken on this superb new set may, of course, not be to everyone's taste. It is certainly an intense ride, favouring up-front emotion instead of a more muted commentaries. But Chailly clearly sees Brahms as a fervent Romantic and one presaging the even more torrid language of his successors.
Added to which Decca provides a 'bonus' disc featuring a rich and noble rendition of the Haydn Variations, an oh-so-brooding Tragic Overture, lilting Liebeslieder Waltzes and a handful of other beautiful performed miniatures. With Klemperer, Karajan, Abbado, Haitink and a host of other greats in the library, Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester may have serious competition on their hands, but few other sets bring the progressive and highly emotional Brahms so brilliantly to life.