Symphonies Nos 3 & 4
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Johannes Brahms’s preference for Lieder and chamber and symphonic music set him against the Lisztians and Wagnerites and to the more fashionable and modern forms of music drama and symphonic poem and cast a shadow over him at least until the rehabilitation of Theodor Adorno, Carl Dahlhaus and Arnold Schönberg in advanced XX century.
Brahms wrote his third and fourth symphonies one after another in a couple of years. The Symphony no. 3 in F major, op. 90, was composed six years after the last symphony and is the shortest in Brahms’s catalogue, although its duration does not prevent it to be rich and interesting and actually it is the proof of the composer’s improvement in the elaboration of a large-scale orchestral work. The symphony revolves around a motto consisting of three notes, F-A♭–F and on the juxtaposition of F major and F minor. Moreover, the opening theme returns in the finale, creating a thematic coherence. The symphony premiered at the Musikverein in Vienna under the conduction of Hans Richter, on 2 December 1883. Richter later stated that this symphony represents Brahms’s Eroica, one of many (and not always favourable) comparisons between Brahms to Beethoven.
The Symphony no. 4 in E minor, op. 98 premiered two years after the third in Meiningen. It is Brahms’s best achievement in the genre and the third movement is the only true Scherzo in Brahms’ symphonies, while the fourth, conceived as a passacaglia on the ground bass melody of the last section of Bach’s cantata Nach dir, Herr, erlanget mich, represents Brahms’s «most thoroughgoing attempt to synthesize historical and modern practice» (quote from the New Grove Dictionnary).
The marvellous recording of Valery Gergiev’s performance with the London Symphony Orchestra collects these two fascinating works giving them an incomparable lustre. The structure of Symphony no. 3 seems (if I am not mistaken) to have suggested to Gergiev to give it the character of a journey. Of course, every symphony can be considered the story of a journey, but this time it is more explicit than ever and it begins in the first movement (Allegro con brio) and proceeds without a pause until the finale. The sound of the orchestra is vivid (note in particular the strings) and leads you through a brilliant first movement to the quiet expectation expressed in the second (Andante) and the break of harmony in the third (Poco allegretto, note in particular the sharp contrast between the beginning of this one and the end of the Andante) to end with the recomposition of the fourth (Allegro).
The Symphony no. 4 is completely different and, in a certain sense, less faceted. This does not mean that Gergiev neglects the nuances, that actually are prominent in the second and third movements (Andante moderato and Allegro giocoso), but here I had the impression that he tried to find unity and coherence. The symphony is thus characterized by a nervous tension which emerges little by little and that becomes breathtaking in the finale.
Overall, this is an exceptional recording and it offers many valuable suggestions.