Brahms & John Eliot Gardiner – Symphony No.1

0 of 5 stars

Brahms
Begräbnisgesang, Op.13
Mendelssohn
Mitten wir im Leben sind, Op.23/3
Brahms
Schicksalslied, Op.54
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

The Monteverdi Choir

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Recorded at concerts in 2007 – 28 & 29 October in Royal Festival Hall, London, and 15, 16 & 18 November in Salle Pleyel, Paris


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: October 2008
CD No: SOLI DEO GLORIA
SDG 702
Duration: 75 minutes

It is refreshing to encounter new thinking in the performance of Brahms’s First Symphony and gratifying to have such interesting music coupled with it. The smart packaging takes the form of a firmly bound booklet with translations of the choral works and the conductor’s reflections on performing style in Brahms and an intriguing interview between Hugh Wood and John Eliot Gardiner.

It may seem ungrateful in the face of such a wealth of accompanying material to require more, but there are no notes on the three choral works, there is no indication that interviewer Hugh Wood is actually the well-known composer of that name and it would have been useful to know which works were performed at which of the two named venues. The fascination of the highly original programme makes these matters seem less important however.

The sombre but beautiful “Begräbnisgesang” is an early work (1858) and is scored for four-part mixed choir, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones, tuba and timpani. This is very much a funeral oration. Its translation into blank verse is an up-to-date realisation of the original 16th-century words and I feel that it could perhaps prove to be far more comforting than many of the poems used at English funerals nowadays. Michael Weisse’s 16th-century poem seems to have inspired the young Brahms to create an exceptionally beautiful melodic line. Sombre brass chords, underpinned by interesting and original timpani-writing stress the seriousness of the subject, the dark-hued woodwind tends mainly to support the female sequences and the whole blend is very rich. Brahms seems touched by the text and the hopefulness of the fourth to sixth of the seven verses find the music moving graciously into the major key.

It may seem strange to include just the one Mendelssohn choral work, but it fits the programme very well by being placed second. Luther’s “In the midst of life we are in death” continues the funereal philosophy, and this thirty-year-earlier a cappella composition is quite similar in style to that of Brahms. The religious convictions of composers rarely seem to hinder their writing. The Agnostic Brahms lavishes great skill on words declaring the certainty of Resurrection and the convinced Protestant Mendelssohn makes the end of Luther’s poem glow as he stresses the words “Kyrie eleison” – usually more familiar to us as part of the Roman Catholic Mass.

The third choral work returns us to Brahms – secular this time – and this setting of Hölderlin’s poem seems unduly neglected. I have admired it since I encountered it as the fill-up to Bruno Walter’s three-sided LP version of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony. The orchestration and the harmonies are the epitome of Brahms’s compositional style – particularly in those moments where the same feeling of breathless hush that Brahms invokes in the first movement of his Fourth Symphony is achieved. There is also a surprisingly close connection between the gentle ending of the second of the three verses and the ending of the first movement of the First symphony. Gardiner’s is a lyrical and unhurried performance, he shapes the long melodic lines with great sensitivity and clarifies the orchestral lines without permitting them to overpower.

Previously I had not heard Gardiner conduct Brahms but his approach to these choral works convinced me of his great sympathy for the composer before hearing a note of the First Symphony, therefore I approached his performance with great anticipation. I have complained of readings that dully reproduce old-fashioned interpretative habits – the many fluctuations of pace were often no more than predictable notions that might once have had dramatic impact but now sound sadly ‘old hat’.

Gardiner is by no means rigid in tempo but any flexibility that he permits himself seems to be implied by the music rather than being imposed. He is not the first conductor to linger over the meditative horn passage near the end of the exposition of the first movement, but there is still reasonable impulse and the return to tempo is managed with assurance and without haste. I don’t want praise for the conductor to seem limited to the sins that he does not commit but I could not help being impressed by his refusal to pay deference to the old habit where conductors start the build-up to the recapitulation slowly, delaying the use of the proper tempo until the return of the main theme. Better still he avoids my bête-noire of anticipating Brahms’s reduction of tempo (Meno allegro) which is marked at bar 495. Some conductors have been known to begin the slower speed as far back as bar 475.

The listener may be surprised at the sparer than usual textures of Gardiner’s Brahms and I can’t be totally certain that the slow movement sounds exactly as Brahms might have heard it. In his notes, Gardiner says, “The idea that we can reconstruct the ‘real’ and ‘original’ Brahms is, of course, a chimera”. He is right I am sure, but his reading of this Andante sostenuto provides a very good implied suggestion of how it might have been. The tempo is rather faster than is normally heard, there is uninhibited use of portamento, the inner textures are very clear and it is good to hear the violin solo at the end as part of the orchestral texture rather than being given a microphone to itself.

Swift and elegant describes the reading of the third movement – the sometimes-insistent trumpet is here balanced as part of the woodwind ensemble. This delicacy enhances the threatening opening to the finale and the use of hard sticks clarifies the important timpani parts. Not only is the pealing horn melody glowing in itself, but the accompanying low trombones, are also admirably evident. After this slow introduction the great main theme sets off: Allegro non troppo ma con brio. This is bar 62 and Gardiner contrives to play the main melody at a tempo that does not have to increase when it is repeated by full orchestra (a fearful hastening scramble is sometimes imposed at bar 94 by other conductors).

Gardiner’s strong, unaffected performance continues, and achieves incisive dramatic contrasts where required; lyrical phrasing is applied to the quieter moments. Eventually Gardiner drives excitingly into the coda – the Più allegro change is very well judged. In this coda there is a particularly triumphant moment when the solemn chorale, played on low brass during the finale’s slow introduction, now arrives at the faster speed – a marvellous effect that frees the sombre melody from its initial gloomy atmosphere and permits it to re-appear exultantly at the enhanced tempo. Unfortunately this is one of those moments where many conductors permit the dead hand of tradition to take over: ignoring the fact that Brahms marks no change of tempo they often slow the speed to disastrously pompous effect. This is one of the many ‘predictable notions’ of which I complained earlier.

Gardiner is to be commended for having avoided all of these and as he entered the coda I was faced with the exciting prospect of hearing the passage exactly as Brahms wrote it. In the event, I could scarcely believe my ears! At this critical moment Gardiner slams on the brakes, and the ten bars containing this great chorale are reduced grossly in tempo to a lumbering adagio. I could grudgingly have understood this (but probably not forgiven it) if it had been part of a wildly romantic performance full of subjective tempo changes but in the context of Gardiner’s unaffected classical approach this sudden, subjective interference with the score is a disaster. The reduction of tempo imposed here by him is proportionately even greater than in some of the dull traditional interpretations.

This well-recorded disc gives little evidence that it represents live performances and there are no great differences in acoustic despite the use of two venues. Gardiner’s performances are full of admirable detail and sensitive shaping. The choral pieces are superbly done, they are beautifully sung with admirably steady intonation – a convincingly original choice of coupling for the symphony. There is much here that would help the listener to a greater appreciation of Brahms, but I am left devastated by the disastrous broken-backed coda of the symphony.

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