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One way of doing Brahms
on 1 October 2014
The first thing to say is that this recording sounds tremendous, thanks both to wonderfully lucid engineering that allows you to hear almost everything and to the sound of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Those who heard the orchestra at the 2014 Proms will not be surprised to be told this. The principal oboe plays ravishingly, if with rather a lot of notes not fully centred in pitch. The next thing to say is that these are among the fastest Brahms symphonies on record; in six well-known cycles for which I have the timings, Chailly is the quickest in ten of the sixteen movements, allowing for the fact that he takes the first-movement repeats. My guess is that this approach stems from Chailly’s recent encounters with Beethoven, in which he has adopted a Rattle-like approach “informed” by “period style”. Those who dislike Brahms’s epic seriousness will probably approve, and the results are certainly bracing. The first movement of the Second Symphony sounds as if it is being done in one-in-a-bar, and the Third in two-in-a-bar. For me much of it is too rushed, and I felt at the end of several movements as if I had been jostled and harried along. The end of the First Symphony is an undignified sprint. The woodwind sound distinctly flurried in the second subject of the Third. The slow movement of the Second is lightweight; indeed the 12/8 section sounds like light music by Elgar. The third movement of the Third is very beautiful indeed (a fabulous diminuendo at one point), and the driving tempo of the finale is convincing, but there is insufficient relaxation into the sunlit glow of the ending. Here and elsewhere the music risks sounding perfunctory. Some will like this very much, but I’d be sorry to think that the influence of the so-called “authenticists” meant that we were no longer allowed to find depth and repose in Brahms. After that, the Fourth is unexpected, an intimate performance, played almost as chamber music. Even the great ending to the first movement doesn’t really catch fire and it certainly can’t be compared with Carlos Kleiber’s famous version in that respect.
The fill-ups – the three standard orchestral fillers, plus orchestrations of Hungarian Dances, some of the Liebeslieder Waltzes and two of the late piano pieces, as well as original versions of the opening of the Fourth Symphony (a 45-second track which is completely baffling unless you have read the booklet) and the slow movement of the First – are again good to listen to, but I can’t imagine listening to those orchestrations often, especially of the piano pieces which sound unrecognisable.
Throughout the set the playing is as precise in ensemble as any I have heard (Brahms’s rhythmic contrasts between twos and threes are amazingly clear), and even the exposed top violin notes are never ugly. These are impressive achievements, though it is easier to get the ensemble tight when a conductor allows as little flexibility as Chailly.
Brahms’s symphonies are probably open to a wider range of interpretation than most Romantic symphonists, and there is most certainly not one single right way of doing them. Chailly’s is obviously an important Brahms cycle, and it is very stimulating to hear, but these are not “central” interpretations.