Brahms – The Symphonies
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 2018
The present recording is not Daniel Barenboim’s first complete recording of Brahms’s four symphonies, as he already recorded them with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra twenty-five years ago. This time, he recorded the symphonies in the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin in October 2017 with the Staatskapelle Berlin, of which he is music director.
From time to time, Daniel Barenboim has impressed or disappointed me as a conductor with an alternation that I do not notice for any other performer. Referring to some of his most recent works, I unconditionally praised his conduction of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, while I was less enthusiastic about On My New Piano (despite the wonderful sound of the instrument) and about his most recent recording of Debussy’s Estampes, Clair de lune and other piano works. This recording of Brahms’s symphonies is fortunately among those I appreciated.
Daniel Barenboim and Brahms’s Symphonies
I want to be clear from the beginning. I do not think there is something really innovative about the rendition of these symphonies. Although this recording offers many passages where it is possible to feel wonder and admiration for Barenboim’s shading and colouring, I never had the impression to listen to something that was absolutely new.
And yet, despite its lack of originality, this rendition of Brahms’s symphonies is not an ordinary one. An idea, a guiding thread is always present and not a single detail is neglected. This recording cannot be considered merely traditional, if “traditional” means that everything or almost everything in it is predictable. On the contrary, Barenboim’s use of the orchestral colours is one of the most stunning features of this recording.
Each symphony has lustrous tone. The Staatskapelle Berlin plays with warmth and finesse. Its play is high-spirited and sumptuous. The colours Barenboim draws from the orchestra are shimmering. I cannot be sure if Barenboim really wanted to make them the strong point of this recording, but they really fill each section with their richness and variety, so that there is not every moment is filled with magic. Moreover, the acoustics of the Pierre Boulez Saal is excellent and the recorded sound is perfect. Not a single nuance has been lost.
These magnificent colours are even more significant as sometimes a sort of relaxation replaces the élan. Although the climaxes are stressed well, the continuous, magnificent ebb and flow of music prevents from lingering on them too long. In this way, the symphonies are fluid and vibrant rather than imposing. Barenboim’s conduction is brisk, often incisive and overall coherent. He shapes the phrases and broadens them in the most elegant way, bringing warmth and resplendence to the symphonies.
This is not a definitive recording of Brahms’s symphonies, but it will be a sad moment when we will have one. Perhaps there are recordings where there are more communicativeness and fresh ideas, but there are also recordings where there is no inspiration at all and that are much worse than this one. Barenboim’s recording of Brahms’s symphonies is noteworthy not only for his colourful rendition, but also for his commitment to music. For these reasons, I think that this recording is really enjoyable and worth listening to.