on 29 August 2013
Readers will note that I give the date for this recording at the commencement of my review. Those who have problems with the technical excellence of the presentation may have a point. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that some of the finest interpretations of music on record date from a period of the old 78-rpm discs and that no amount of restoration can overcome defects in early recording techniques. That said, I should not like to miss Artur Schnabel's Beethoven piano works simply because the bulk of his recordings were made pre-WW2 on a Bechstein pianoforte!
This recording from 1981 by Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic is rightly judged as one of the truly great performances of the Brahms E minor. As I point out in a comment after GlynLuke's review, I have probably listened to more performances of this symphony than to any other; Kleiber's interpretation must rank amongst the finest of these.
In consideration of this I would have to include some live performances made in the early post-WW2 years at the London Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Then the conductors Malcolm Sergent and Basil Cameron used to carry the burden of the performances, unlike the many contributions of today. There was then a traditional Bach/Brahms concert (usually on a Wednesday) conducted by Cameron that always featured the Brahms E minor. Of course, there are no recordings of these memorable evenings, nor was Cameron "honoured" or regarded as a celebrity. What he did have was an intimate knowledge of the work that no doubt benefited from his studies with the violinist Joseph Joachim, a close, lifelong friend of Brahms.
To my understanding the notion of a definitive performance for any musical work is a misnomer. Whilst I would rank Kleiber here along with Toscanni, Furtwangler, Kubelik, Walter, and others, all give us a slightly differing experience of the symphony. In fact I would go further and say that as presented on this CD Kleiber is unmatched.
One thing I do not wish to do with this revue is to dissect the performance into its constituent parts and to thereby detract from the point that this symphony is a supreme masterpiece of musical construction. Instead, I shall make just a few comments on the performance and then go on to give some background that listeners may find of interest when considering this recording.
Overall, Kleiber does not indulge in rubato as was typical of Furtwangler, for example. His choice of tempo for the first movement is perfect thus enabling the music to breathe and develop. (I first became aware of this symphony's stature as a schoolboy in my mid-teens on hearing a fine performance in which the coda to the first movement realized all the energy this remarkable Allegro non troppo generates. This too is fully achieved in this performance with Kleiber.)
Likewise in the second movement (Andante moderato) Kleiber brings out beautiful clarity from the orchestra. Brahms's use of the wind in particular fully justifies the adage that "with Bach one hears the organ, with Beethoven the orchestra, but with Brahms we hear both the organ and the orchestra".
In the third movement the pace is lively but not so much as to blur the massive sound that frequently rises to a double fortissimo. In Brahms's day the tympani may have cut through more effectively than we can expect from its modern equivalent.
In performance the finale should follow with as short a break between movements as is feasible (see below). In a recording this could only be achieved by running the two movements consecutively on the same track, something I have yet to come across. Brahms may have had in mind the raucous ending to his "scherzo" as a means of giving the three trombones the opportunity to "feel" their way into into the finale, their first sounding in the entire work (see below).
There are so many points to listen out for, far too many to mention in a review but one would have to draw attention to the flute solo variation close to the middle of the movement. This is often given as a test piece to flautists auditioning for a place in an orchestra, And before that, the sawing string rhythm typical of Bach is unmistakable.
The Fourth Symphony was committed to manuscript during the summer of 1885 (first published 1886) when the composer was aged 52 and staying at Mürzzuschlag, Austria. (Brahms was a dedicated walker and often chose venues for his physical exercise as well as for composition.) He had obviously been sketching out ideas for the work some time before 1885.
To many commentators the choice of the tonality (or key) of E minor appeared at the time both brave and controversial. Edwin Evans in his extensive analysis of Brahms's compositions writes as follows: There has been much comment on Brahms's choice of E minor for his Fourth Symphony, this key having been generally avoided by Symphonists. Berlioz was especially severe upon it, declaring openly that it was "criard" and of vulgar tendency. Riemann also remarks upon its rarity as a symphony key and can only recall J Raff's No. 9, entitled "Im Sommer"--which by the way he evidently does not think much of-- since Haydn's "Trauer" Symphony in 1772.
Evans then goes on to "defend" the tonality of E minor which would seem superfluous for us today since there followed closely on the heels of the Brahms Symphony in that key symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and later Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and Rachmaninoff.
It is interesting that Haydn should have seen E minor as appropriate for his "Trauersinfonie" or "Mourning" Symphony (No. 44). The Brahms, although hardly a funeral dirge, is not a work of jubilation either (unless one attributes an exhibition of high craftsmanship as a celebration of a certain kind).
That Brahms was conscious of a sense of pioneering with this symphony is evident from the correspondence at the time. Among his chosen confidants was Elisabet von Herzogenberg (wife of the composer Professor Heinrich von Herzogenberg) to whom he wrote on August 29 1885: `Might I venture to send you a piece of a piece of mine, and should you have time to look at it, tell me what you think of it? The trouble is that, on the whole, pieces by me are nicer than I am myself, and need less setting to right! But cherries seldom ripen fit to eat in these parts and so do not hesitate to say if you do not enjoy the taste--I am not wanting to write a bad No.4.'
A similar sentiment was conveyed to the conductor Hans von Bulow who was closely involved in presenting the Symphony to the public. In fact, Brahms himself was involved in rehearsals for the first performance to be given by Bulow on October 25, 1885, after which Bulow is reported to have said (here in translation of course): "Number Four is stupendous, quite original, individual and rocklike; incomparable strength from start to finish." And to my ears and brain this is as reasonable a description in one sentence that you might seek for this enduring masterpiece. (Richard Osborne in his admirable notice for the recording under review quotes from the philosopher Susanne Langer in somewhat more lengthy prose.)
And so to the Fourth Symphony itself. It followed hard on the heels of the Third, as did the Second follow the First. And, as with the first pairing, these two works are sharply contrasted. Originally Brahms had two opening chords for the commencement of the work but discarded them later. As others have noted, the manner in which the work begins has a sense of having already been upon a journey, or, as Hans Keller often remarks in respect of the Haydn Quartets "The beginning before the beginning".
This allegro non troppo (a favoured tempo marking with Brahms), in common time, opens with the first and second violins alone--a single crotchet one octave apart and spanning the octave above "middle C". They drop in the next bar the interval of a major third from where they are joined by the rest of the orchestra, excepting brass, and thus we are launched upon a journey that, if we were to follow it in detail here, would take up volumes. Let the music speak for itself! The "seesaw" effect of this opening theme is clearly related to an episode in the slow movement from Beethoven's late Piano Sonata in B flat (Opus 106) known popularly as the "Hammerklavia" and with which Brahms was intimately acquainted as a pianist.
The movement progresses with seeming effortless invention until we come to a point, so often present in Brahms's music, where the "dreaming" has to stop, so to speak. This is achieved by a change of rhythm and is usually accompanied by upping the volume a little, usually to fortissimo. Shortly after this mood change we are made aware of the opening theme that is now put across with some emphasis. In contrast to the earlier symphonies, there is no exposition repeat; instead one may think of the entire first movement an exposition in its own right that leads on inevitably to the powerful coda.
The conclusion to the first movement is scored for full orchestra upon a semibreve with tympani roll on the tonic E. This is wholly appropriate and makes an interesting comparison with other great symphonists, notably Haydn and Beethoven both of whom tended to end their works with a fortissimo, brief crotchet across the orchestra.
The second movement (Andante moderato) commences with the core motif announced by two horns fortissimo apparently in the key of C major, but this is illusory when we quickly realise the tonality is that of E major. (Again with an ear to history and knowing of Brahms's great respect for the chamber music of Haydn, it may not be beyond the bounds of possibility that he had the idea for this slow movement from the older composer's Piano Trio in D, Hob. XV:24.)
Continuing, the horns are soon joined by the rest of the wind band to expand this statement before the introduction of pizzicato strings at bar 5, by which time the sound has dropped to double pianissimo. The strings continue their pizzicato to bar 29, after which the score is marked arco with the orchestra working towards a typical Brahms dynamic interjection (refer to the first movement) at bar 36 that is to play a major role in the movement's climax.
A master touch has to do with the theme that follows this interjection at bar 41 where the strings sing a theme that can only be described as a mixture of calm tinged with pathos. This theme is to appear later when it is proclaimed with bold affirmation by strings fortissimo (Elgar would have notated this Noblemente) following the repeat of the "interjection" then played double fortissimo by the entire orchestra. Thereafter we have the main opening theme of the movement displayed in all its glory eventually winding down to the quiet, tranquil close to the movement on E major.
In the boisterous third movement (Allegro giocoso in C major), to which a single triangle is modestly added to the orchestral forces, we have for the first time in a Brahms symphony something approaching a scherzo (hitherto he had favoured a gentler approach with a concoction all his own, neither a minuet nor a scherzo in fact). But, unlike the third movement scherzi of Beethoven and Schubert, there is no "trio section"; instead we have a short reprieve from the high spirits in a poco meno presto played quietly and lasting a mere 18 bars before returning to a repeat of the high spirits which in keeping with the work so far has a substantial developmental coda leading to an abrupt ending on fortissimo quavers across the orchestra.
Finale (Allegro energico e passionate):
Although Brahms does not indicate in the score an attacca link to the finale, the interval of time between the ending of the "scherzo" and the trombones' entry should be kept to a minimum. The transition from tonality of C major to that of E minor should come as a revelation, with the trombones sounding in the symphony for the first time. Moreover, retaining the dynamic at fortissimo also gives a sense of continuity towards progressive evolvement of the eight-bar "theme", upon which the entire movement is built.
Brahms, as is well documented, was steeped in the music of Bach so that it is not surprising to find him gaining inspiration for this finale from a Bach Chaconne presented in passacaglia form. (Passacaglia in fact permeates the entire Symphony, but that is another story!)
Of course other composers have used variation form in the finale to their works, notably Beethoven in the finale to the "Eroica" Symphony (No. 3 in E flat) and in two of his string quartets. It is interesting to note that although Haydn made use of variation form a good deal, in only two works does this occur in a fourth movement, and both in an early keyboard trio and a symphony. (Brahms throughout his entire corpus followed Haydn more closely than he did Mozart in the use of variations.)
Brahms's use of the theme is strictly measured and only becomes "freed-up" as we approach the end. To analyse these variations would require another volume to do them justice. Let it suffice to say that the rendering of this finale is the greatest challenge for any interpreter; one may judge the measure of their success by the impression one has when the music has stopped.
The final pages are telling. Brahms at bar 249 writes Poco ritard, then four bars later Piu Allegro. Then to the end at bar 313, it is left to the judgement of the conductor: to inject a slight accelerando so as to bring the work to an abrupt end, or to linger a little? You, the listener, must decide which best suits your understanding of this monumental work.
In conclusion I should like to quote from my review of a recording of Sergie Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony in E minor for the Rachmaninoff Society:
By Rachmaninoff's day it was incumbent upon a composer to make a strong personal statement through the symphony. At least, this is what we are led to believe. But were Haydn and Mozart (and composers before them) less concerned with personal expression through music than were the so-called romantics? Are we not sometimes shocked to find universal human emotion spread out through both time and race? Mozart achieved something obviously tragic in his late G minor Symphony.
But Haydn, who had a different perspective from Mozart where minor keys were concerned, could achieve deep pathos within the confines of a major key work as is obvious in many of his slow movements. Take just three examples: the beautiful largo from Symphony No. 64, the contrasting moods in the capriccio from Symphony No. 86. In the case of Symphony No 99 we even have reason to believe that he was mourning the loss of his dear friend Marianna von Genzinger.
Beethoven in his two minor key symphonies, the fifth and ninth, seems to be expressing a mood of defiance rather than pathos. It is only when we reach Schubert's B minor Symphony (Unfinished) that we find anything suggestive of what Tchaikovsky was to achieve in his two late symphonies. But whereas in the Schubert B minor we have something sensibly cosmic in its grief (to my senses, at any rate) the Tchaikovsky B minor (Pathetique) comes across as a deeply personal utterance. Rachmaninoff never comes close to Tchaikovsky's Pathetique in this sense. The first symphony, for all the personal anguish its composer experienced as a result of a bad first performance, is more a heroic work than a pathetic one. ("Vengeance is mine, I will repay" Rachmaninoff is said to have written on the original score.) The Second Symphony is hardly a pathetic symphony either, and the Third is unique in its blend of reminiscing and bittersweet power.
The tonality of E has never been a popular one with composers. Whilst there is no shortage from all the great symphonists of works in E flat major, few had touched E or E minor (Joseph Haydn wrote one in E minor - the Trauer - and two in E major; Schubert sketched a symphony in E). But it was Brahms who opened the floodgates with his Fourth Symphony.