Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 28 June, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In the second of three Brahms concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra (this one given as a matinee) Lorin Maazel ensured that the Third Symphony emerged as the composer’s most-personal (and Romantic) and the Fourth as his most-Classical and absolute.
The opening bars of No.3 were stated as both assertive and mellow (the latter quality a tribute to careful balancing of textures, with brass integrated and warm). Hallmarks set down in the first of these concerts (symphonies 1 and 2) were maintained – generous expression, beguiling detail (especially from the woodwinds), copious dynamic changes and technical supremacy. If fluctuations of pace sometimes seemed a detour, there was also much to hold the attention. No.3’s first movement, rounded and spacious, was of a sizeable dimension (despite lacking the exposition repeat), the ensuing Andante enjoying a flowing current while also relaxing into confidences. With the Poco allegretto Maazel was at his most interventionist; rarely has this third movement been so lovingly shaped, so caressed (some would say indulged), the Philharmonia violins at their sweetest and the cellos raptly luminous (Maazel singled these latter musicians out, led by Moray Welsh, for applause). It was very beautiful and very moving – Nigel Black’s gentle horn solo seeming to sound from afar – if somewhat dislocated from the rest of the work and, indeed, seeming remarkably akin to the Adagietto from Mahler’s (post-Brahms) Fifth Symphony. If, after this, the finale seemed less than momentous – despite there being no lack of drive, resolution (without bombast) and quiet reflection (avoiding sentimentality) – it was probably because the previous movement had cast such a very long shadow.
No such time-delay with the Fourth Symphony, which received as fine a performance as one could wish for – proprietorial, indivisible and indomitable. The first movement, shot through with lyrical electricity, and however sweeping, had something held in reserve for an urgent and anguished coda. Following an Andante moderato of definite tread and opulent moulding, the scherzo was of positive energy (piccolo and triangle, which can seem frivolous additions, glinting brightly); and, then, straight into the passacaglia finale in which Maazel avoided the stasis that some of the Variations can be lapsed into (not least the one that features a solo flute, Kenneth Smith here) without compromising vividness. This was an incident-packed realisation of Brahms’s symphonic swansong – the pick of a stimulating and thought-provoking quartet of performances – every bar belonging, the ultimate coda defiant rather than tragic. Just a few hours later, Maazel would be conducting “Ein deutsches Requiem”…