Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London on 16-17 June 2004
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: February 2005
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0057
Duration: 41 minutes
The current catalogue lists over 50 performances of this work, so do we really need another one, especially when the list includes great performances from the likes of Carlos Kleiber, Klemperer, Loughran, Markevitch, Mravinsky, Szell and Toscanini amongst many others? For comparison I have chosen Loughran and the Hallé from 1974 (CFP) and Toscanini and the NBCSO from 1943 (Music & Arts). These have been selected because they give an approximate 30-year gap between each performance, Loughran’s fine cycle tends to be unjustly overlooked and Toscanini’s December 1942 and January 1943 cycle is the finest of those by the twentieth-century’s greatest Brahms conductor.
Brahms’s Fourth is an unusual work. It has two opening movements which are in sonata form, a third which is the nearest that Brahms got to writing an orchestral scherzo – and which it can be argued is also in sonata form – and a finale which is an extended set of variations in strict passacaglia form. Form and structure are vital in this symphony and Haitink tends to take a very clear-eyed view of all the music he conducts. This is evident in the first subject where Haitink doesn’t allow the final note of the opening upper-string bars to be elongated in any way, thus keeping everything in strict 3/4 time and nor does he countenance anything but marginal swells of tone or dynamic in the string and woodwind phrasing. In the canonic second subject the same literal approach continues, but here the rhythm is too unvaried and heavy and the woodwind fanfares too muted. There is no traditional sonata form repeat to observe or ignore, rather a discursive bass passage leads to the development and Haitink does allow the tension to drop here – it all sounds rather laboured. By contrast Loughran adopts a very similar tempo but allows his strings and woodwind to phrase more freely, while never losing a sense of line. Toscanini is quicker than both and makes use of substantial variations in dynamics and weight of tone from the opening bars; he also shapes the melodic and rhythmic line in a way that leads the listener on from note to note. Both sound more idiomatic than Haitink, who nevertheless does have a certain powerful directness.
The romance-like slow movement is marked Andante moderato and, although Haitink’s tempo is gently reflective, the first theme doesn’t really sing and the pizzicato bass is initially too rigid and heavy. This rigidity affects the second subject, which lacks the ethereal quality of Loughran and Toscanini. In the development Haitink is again purposeful, but doesn’t let the players sing; they remain caught within the bar-lines. Neither he nor Loughran can match Toscanini’s combination of attack and fluidity in these pages and, in the recapitulation, the NBC strings are in a different class to those of the LSO and Hallé.
In the Allegro giocoso Haitink chooses a reasonably fast tempo which enables him to project large blocks of sound and gives the orchestra time to emphasise the rhythms. The cumulative affect is very powerful but lacks a sense of joy and the second theme is slightly too slow. Loughran’s main tempo is slower but he uses far more rubato and variations of tone, dynamic and attack. Toscanini belongs to a different world, the tempo is very fast, the number of staccato and sforzando effects – often sounding like whip-cracks – are innumerable and yet the control and variation of every expressive device that an orchestra can use is absolute.
Brahms marked the last movement Allegro energico e passionato and here Haitink takes a tempo that is faster than most; however the variation theme still sounds very soft in outline when it is announced. Of the thirty variations the middle ten are marked to be the slowest; here Haitink, like so many others, slows too much. In the coda there is a sense of inevitability but the weak final chord doesn’t give a sense of finality. Loughran again adopts a similar tempo, but keeps the central section moving through a more flexible approach to phrasing rather than a substantial difference in tempo and his coda has a sense of tragic stoicism. Once again though Toscanini shows how elemental this music can sound, the opening eight chords blaze and from then on a sense of inexorable progress is conveyed, like Loughran, via subtle changes in phrasing, dynamic and rhythm. His coda is not especially fast but the attack is ferocious and the sense of total conviction almost intimidating.
The LSO plays very well for Haitink, although there are one or two moments of dodgy intonation and ensemble and his conception is direct and obviously deeply felt. He is let down by the recording quality – as ever the LSO Live series totally fails to convey any sense of the Barbican acoustic or any sense of space around the orchestra, and the CD’s playing time is stingy, even at budget.
At budget-price Loughran is a better investment and although the Toscanini is in less than audiophile-quality sound, his performance is the one to go for in interpretative terms.