Bernard’s Brahms

Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op.98

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 June, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Returning to complete his Brahms cycle, being recorded for LSO Live, this concert of Brahms’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, on its first outing, was (to use football parlance) very much a game of two halves.

After the sonic and architectural excellence of Mahler 6 a few days ago, the move backward to Brahms seemed to have unsettled the players, especially in the Third Symphony. Spacious to a fault (which, of course, the mellowness of the work warrants), there was the occasional insecurity in ensemble (and a slipped cello spike at the start of the third movement Poco allegretto for instance) and the slightest lack of coherence. Yet Haitink’s resolve was impressive – most often conducting at a slow pace (the first movement was taken in two; only occasionally, where drama required, breaking into six) – and there was much fine playing, especially in the woodwinds. But there was a lack of naturalness and confidence. Given the spaciousness of the Third (well over 40 minutes), what was presumably the original plan, to put both symphonies on one CD, may be compromised.

One curious thing was the quality of the sound. Admittedly for Mahler 6 I was sitting in a different place, but sitting further back and more centrally in the stalls the string tone in Brahms sounded dry, artificial and sometimes overly strident, very much the ‘quality’ of sound of Haitink’s Brahms recordings last year. Partly this is to do with Brahms’s scoring – often gilding the lily with tutti string passages – but in a more generous acoustic this could have sounded much more rounded. Oddly, the pizzicatos in the Fourth Symphony sounded full and buoyant.

After the interval, with an eminently more dramatic work, Haitink pursued a clear logic with welcome impetus. It came off much the better of the two performances, easily withstanding the visual addition of the co-principal violinist having to pass his violin back to a colleague to restring it at the start of the Allegro giocoso third movement. Occasionally the brass continued to sound too brash (the trombones in the finale’s chorale a little too rasping, standing apart from the rest of the ensemble), but on the whole the Fourth greeted the audience like an esteemed old friend rather than the bewildered country cousin of the Third.

  • Concert repeated Thursday 17 June at 7.30
  • LSO

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