Brahms: Symphony No 1, Etc / Gardiner, Et Al

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This new Brahms symphony cycle has been launched auspiciously.

With the exception of their very fine disc, Pilgrimage to Santiago (SDG701), all releases to date on the Monteverdi Choir’s Soli Deo Gloria label have been taken from their 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. Now, with this CD they launch recordings that relate to another important project.

‘Brahms and his Antecedents’ is the title that Sir John Eliot Gardiner has given to a series of concerts, some of which were given in autumn 2007, with the remainder to take place this coming autumn (2008). In these concerts Gardiner is playing the four Brahms symphonies and Ein deutsches Requiem. However, the crucial thing is that he plans to set these works in the context of other choral works by Brahms, together with choral pieces both by composers of earlier generations who Brahms especially admired. These include Bach and Schütz but he also plans to represent composers who were closer to Brahms’s own time and whose music was close to his heart: Mendelssohn and Schumann.

Gardiner made a revelatory recording of Ein deutsches Requiem as long ago as 1990 (Philips 4321402) and so far as I’m aware it’s not intended to duplicate that recording in this series but he will offer a cycle of all four symphonies. In the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series what appears on the discs is, with very rare exceptions, a replica of the concert programmes that were given during the pilgrimage. I’m not entirely sure that this same principle is being followed in this Brahms series because the concert that I heard on BBC Radio 3 included the ‘Haydn’ Variations and music by Schubert as a preface to the First symphony and not the pieces included on this disc. However, there’s still a good deal of logic to the programme that’s presented here and listeners may find it as fascinating as I did to listen, at least on the first occasion, straight through. In that spirit I’m going to comment on each performance in the order in which it appears on the CD.

Begräbnisgesang (‘Funeral Anthem’) is something of a rarity. It sets a sixteenth-century text by Michael Weisse for mixed chorus and an accompaniment of twelve wind/brass instruments plus timpani. The gravity and nobility of the music prefigures Ein deutsches Requiem but the accompaniment, in particular, emphasises Brahms’s debt to Schütz. The performance here is sonorous and dedicated, with the singing notably incisive. I notice, incidentally, that there’s a photograph in the booklet, presumably taken during one of the concerts, from which it appears that the choir was positioned right in front of Gardiner and in front of the instrumentalists. I don’t know if this arrangement was used for all the choral pieces – to judge from the limited number of instruments visible in the photograph, all of which are wind or brass, I suspect that this picture captures a moment during a performance of Begräbnisgesang.  

Next we hear an unaccompanied choral work by Mendelssohn, his Mitten wir im Leben sind (‘In the midst of life’). This is the third of his collection Drei Kirchenmusiken and the words are by Martin Luther. It makes a very apt juxtaposition with Begräbnisgesang and just serves to highlight the musical lineage, as Gardiner clearly intended. It’s a powerful piece – a strong prayer – and Gardiner’s finely focused choir projects it strongly. The piece ends with a hushed ‘Kyrie eleison’ and here the singing is impressively controlled.

The final choral contribution is the most familiar of the three works involving the Monteverdi Choir. Schicksalslied (‘Song of Destiny’) is a setting of words by Friedrich Hölderlin, from his Hyperion (1797-99). Gardiner gives a marvellous performance. The beautiful, spacious orchestral introduction, in warm, luminous E flat major, is unfolded most sympathetically and when the choir enters they sustain this elevated mood. The heavenly spaces, evoked in the first two stanzas of Hölderlin’s words, are echoed quite wonderfully in Brahms’s generous music and in this radiant performance. The turbulent minor key stretches of the third stanza are delivered dramatically by chorus and orchestra alike. Then the opening material returns, this time in C major, on the orchestra alone for a gentle, restful postlude. Here, as elsewhere in the performance, one relishes the marvellous clarity of texture that the ORR achieve on their period instruments.

The disc is completed by a gripping account of Brahms’s First Symphony. It seems to me that the most direct competition to Gardiner’s reading comes from the recording made by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1997 (see review). In the complete set of the Brahms symphonies from which that performance was drawn Mackerras set out deliberately to replicate the orchestral forces that Brahms would have encountered in many provincial German towns and cities - orchestras such as the Meiningen Court Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Steinbach between 1886 and 1903. Mackerras used an orchestra of modern instruments but, like Gardiner, he divided his violins left and right – hooray! The forces used on the two recordings are pretty similar although, interestingly, Gardiner has more string players in “the middle” – the second violins and violas. Mackerras has a string section comprising 10, 8, 6, 6, 4 while Gardiner has 12, 10, 10, 7, 5. In terms of overall timings – and, indeed, timings for individual movements – the two are virtually identical. Gardiner’s performance lasts 44:09 and Mackerras takes 44:07 – note that both conductors play the first movement exposition repeat, unlike a number of other conductors on disc. Just by way of comparison, Semyon Bychkov, whose performance I much admired a little while ago, takes 49:33 and he also takes that repeat. I only found Terry Barfoot’s review of the Mackerras version after I’d completed my listening to Gardiner and I was interested to read that he had reservations about the Telarc recorded sound. I must say that I didn’t remark on the lack of body in the violins in alt as much as he did but on more than one occasion my listening notes record that I found the Telarc sound to be rather soft grained and this seemed to compromise the bite and strength of the Mackerras reading.

No such reservations about the sound for Gardiner, however. The recording is full and present, though never aggressive in any way, and the sound of the orchestra seems to be powerfully and truthfully reported. Right from the start of the first movement there’s evident drive in Gardiner’s reading – the horns contribute superbly in these pages and, indeed, will be a telling presence throughout. The very first time I listened to the performance I wondered if it was a bit unyielding, for it seemed that Gardiner was disinclined to observe any of the “traditional” bits of rubato. However, closer listening, aided by a score, reassured me that this is not so. It’s a fresh reading but not an iconoclastic one and Gardiner is properly inside Brahmsian style – though, characteristically, he doesn’t slavishly follow tradition for the sake of it.

What one does notice early on – for example at 14 bars into the main allegro of I – is the use of portamento in the strings. This is well judged and not done to excess and it adds a welcome touch of authentic expression. As the first movement unfolds I was completely taken up by the huge energy and purpose in the music making. This is strong, sinewy Brahms and I think there are two key ingredients here. One is Gardiner’s characteristic rhythmic acuity. The other is the tremendous transparency to the orchestral sound. There’s no trace of thickness and, as I’ve already indicated, the horns regularly provide a tangibly exciting presence, as does the timpanist. Sir Charles Mackerras is also taut and urgent in this movement but, aided by a much more present recording, Sir John provides even more bite, while never underplaying Brahms’s lyrical side.

The second movement brings more good use of portamento from the ORR strings. At the start of the movement the division of the violins brings important dividends – as it does in the Mackerras performance. The woodwind playing was excellent in the first movement but in this second movement there’s some really distinguished work from the wind principals. Gardiner gives the music as much space as it needs, but never to the detriment of momentum. In the passage just before cue C (from about 3:19) there’s real urgency in the playing, which I like very much. The last few minutes of the movement (from cue E, 5:37) are lovely. Sir John obtains some superb playing from his leader (Peter Hanson), first oboe (Michael Niessemann) and principal horn (Anneke Scott), all of whom play their respective radiant melodic lines wonderfully.

The third movement is marked ‘Un poco allegretto e grazioso’ and the pace adopted by Gardiner may strike some listeners as a little brisk, given the qualification ‘un poco’. However, it seems to me that his approach is buoyant and fresh. In Gardiner’s hands the trio has a Schubertian lift – I was reminded quite forcibly of the ‘Great’ C major symphony – and the ‘Poco tranquillo’ ending is quite beautifully managed. Mackerras, I find, is a little less energetic in this movement and this was one of the instances where I thought that the recorded sound slightly compromised his reading.

Gardiner leads a very dramatic reading of the introduction to the finale. When the great horn melody arrives, played, I assume, on valveless instruments, it really does sound as if the tune is echoing across an alpine valley. The allegro, with its broad theme, has space but also abundant energy and as this section develops Gardiner propels the music along excitingly. Yet despite the thrust of the reading there’s time for reflection too. So, for example, the oboist is given ample time to phrase his important solo just after cue F (6:31) eloquently. One short passage that caught my ear occurs at 9:38, where there’s interplay between the first and second violins. It lasts only a few bars but it’s an excellent example of the dividends to be reaped by dividing the fiddles. The music making in this movement frequently crackles with electricity yet the excitement is always thoroughly musical – there’s no playing to the gallery. As the end approaches the Più Allegro (14:32) is tremendously vital. Moments later (14:50), the brass chorale has grandeur but is not grandiose – Mackerras is a touch more stately here – and then the headlong dash for the end is exhilarating.

I suspect that this is an account of the Brahms First that will divide opinion. Some will find it strong meat but for my part that’s just what I like about it. This is a fresh, vital reading of the symphony yet it seems to be one that is fully respectful of tradition – or rather of the best of Brahmsian tradition. I think it’s an important and envigorating addition to the discography of this symphony. I certainly shan’t discard the fine Mackerras performance, for it has much to offer, but I think that Sir John wins this “battle of the knights” on points.

I’ve already alluded to the good sound quality. I don’t know how much these recordings have been patched together from the performances at the two separate venues but I wasn’t aware of any discrepancies in the acoustic. Presentation is fully up to the usual high standards of the house, the booklet featuring a most interesting conversation between Sir John and Hugh Wood. This new Brahms symphony cycle has been launched auspiciously and, judged by this first release, seems likely to become an important and distinguished one as it unfolds. The juxtaposition with other, highly relevant music by Brahms and others adds a crucial additional dimension. I look forward keenly to the remaining instalments, noting that next on the release schedule is my own favourite, the Second Symphony.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International  

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 07, 2009

  • Catalog Number: SDG 702

  • UPC: 843183070220

  • Label: Soli Deo Gloria

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms

  • Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique


  1. Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

    Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner

  2. Sacred Pieces (3), Op. 23: no 3, Mitten wir im Leben sind

    Composer: Felix Mendelssohn

    Ensemble: Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

    Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner

  3. Song of Destiny, Op. 54

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

    Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner

  4. Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

    Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner