August 13, 2020


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $49.99 (4 CDs).

     Conductors face a problem when approaching the most-canonical works in the classical canon: there may well seem to be nothing to say about them, musically, that has not been said before. In fact, even the decision to release a new recording of thrice-familiar music can be a difficult one, since potential purchasers will almost surely own favored recordings of the music already and will not necessarily be disposed to acquire a new version that perhaps differs from others only in a few minor details. Happily, these risks did not dissuade the producers of the new release of Brahms’ symphonies on the Wiener Symphoniker’s own label, featuring live recordings of the orchestra conducted by Philippe Jordan – because it turns out that Jordan does have a number of ideas about these works that, if not exactly new, are unusual, and result in a set of readings that are worth considering even by listeners who already own one or several versions of the Brahms cycle.

     One noteworthy feature here is that the recording was made in Vienna’s Musikverein building, where two of the symphonies, Nos. 2 and 3, received their world première performances; Nos. 1 and 4 were also played in the venue shortly after their debuts elsewhere. Acoustically speaking, the music “fits” the hall beautifully; and while, of course, no current member of the orchestra was born when these works were first heard, the ensemble does have a characteristic sound dating back to Brahms’ time – a sound that the Wiener Symphoniker has been at pains to preserve through all the years and all the turmoil since the Romantic era.

     Jordan himself, the orchestra’s music director from 2014 to 2020, honed what was already a remarkably rich and precise orchestral sound even further, and these recordings from 2019 showcase the beauty, elegance, and superb sectional balance of the orchestra, along with the soloist-quality playing of section principals.

     The sonic environment and exceptional playing are not, however, all that distinguish this Brahms cycle from others, and indeed would not be enough in themselves to make this release as successful as it is. What is so outstanding here is the way Jordan finds that the Brahms symphonies, in spite of their status as works that are heard nearly ad infinitum (some would cynically say ad nauseam), have meanings that have not been fully plumbed: they still have things to communicate, sources of pleasure and trenchant emotional connection, that can be brought out in unexpected ways.

     That is just what Jordan does. He does so most clearly by avoiding the now-traditional massed and massive “Brahms sound” that so many conductors actively seek, a sound that can be enormously impressive but that can all too easily become clotted and turgid. Jordan insists on a level of clarity that Brahms’ symphonies rarely receive: not only the principal themes but also the subsidiary ones, and the middle voices, come through clearly in these readings, sharpening the works’ focus and allowing use of the wonderful sectional balance of the Wiener Symphoniker to the best possible effect. In addition, Jordan looks in all these symphonies for the songful elements as a balance for the dramatic ones: Brahms is not often thought of as having a “singing” quality in his orchestral music, but he does here.

     Thus, the gorgeous second-movement violin solo in Symphony No. 1 becomes an especially intense expression and extension of emotions first put forth in the opening movement: instead of coming across as a surprising touch (a beautiful one, to be sure), it seems a logical heightening of what has come before, stirring the symphony’s emotive power to new heights by rising above what Brahms has already presented. This helps make more sense and a more thorough integration of the intermezzo-like, non-scherzo third movement, whose lovely, lyrical flow here fits neatly into the symphony’s overall concept. And even the high drama of the finale, in which the Wiener Symphoniker’s brass really excels, has a genuinely small-r romantic feeling in addition to the capital-R Romantic one that comes through in just about every performance of the work.

     The songfulness of the first movement of Symphony No. 2 is scarcely a surprise: Brahms actually quotes one of his songs in it. But Jordan carries this lullaby-like feeling through much of the symphony: not only the whole first movement but also the second, despite taking that movement a bit faster than usual. And even in the brighter second half of the symphony – where, in this case, the intermezzo-like third movement represents a change of mood – Jordan never loses sight of the essential songfulness of the material. That third movement is, after all, marked Allegretto grazioso, in this way tying to the partial designation of the second as ma grazioso. It is the third movement’s gracefulness that Jordan highlights to very fine effect. And while the finale is certainly played with verve and all the vigor that its Allegro con spirito marking suggests, Jordan nevertheless finds warmth amid the sparkle – in the brief solos by individual woodwinds, for example, and in the delicately scored central section – turning this celebratory conclusion into a capstone that nevertheless stays in touch with the symphony’s earlier lyrical beauties.

     For Jordan, Symphony No. 3, Brahms’ shortest and most tight-knit, becomes quiet, gentle and rather sweet almost immediately after its forceful opening chords. Jordan sees this as a very inward-looking symphony, with gentle rocking motion a continual feature. The transparency of the first movement here is quite different from what is usually associated with Brahms, giving the music an almost pastoral feeling. The warmth of the strings in the first movement’s development section is especially telling, and this warm feeling carries beautifully into and through the second movement. Jordan is certainly not blind to the symphony’s drama, which comes through in portions of the first movement and with particular intensity in the finale. But what he emphasizes is its lyricism, as in the lovely, waltzlike cantilena of the third movement – an intermezzo that continues and intensifies the mood established previously instead of contrasting with it. That mood is heightened further through the darkness pervading most of the finale – this is a major-key symphony (in F) that often flirts with the minor and has distinct and unusual minor-key sensibilities throughout. But in keeping with Jordan’s focus on the symphonies’ lyricism, he emphasizes the poetic nature of the finale’s themes, and the remarkable quiet, chorale-like conclusion therefore comes across as a sigh of relief, gentle and accepting after all the turmoil (however beautifully expressed) that has come before.

     Jordan starts Brahms’ Bach-infused Symphony No. 4 at a fairly slow pace and with great warmth: if the Third is a major-key symphony with minor-key feeling, the Fourth is the opposite, being in E minor but having a generally upbeat nature – not quite as sunny as that of the Second, but certainly positive. The first movement in this performance is quite special: the expansive lyricism of the themes makes the movement seem even broader and more wide-ranging than in most performances. Jordan lets the beauty of the material flow freely, keeping to tempo but bringing forth the subtlety of Brahms’ scoring to very fine effect. Indeed, this symphony gets the most-nuanced performance of the four in this set, befitting the high level of refinement of the music. The transparency of orchestral sound is particularly pronounced here, and Jordan is especially attentive to the work’s rhythmic flow. He is also quite careful about tempo indications, and takes the second movement at a true Andante moderato, not over-extending it but not rushing it, either. This makes the movement contemplative but scarcely dour, giving it a feeling of delicacy that is, however, never dilettantish. Then the third movement, Brahms’ only out-and-out symphonic scherzo, bubbles along most appealingly, starting ebulliently and with strong contrast to the second movement. Even here, Jordan finds opportunities to focus on lyrical, songlike elements, but as a whole, this is a movement that sweeps away most of the symphony’s earlier seriousness and paves the way for a stately and elegant finale. Jordan handles the concluding passacaglia with aplomb, shaping each of the 30 variations with care while ensuring a significant role for the trombones, which Brahms uses to highlight the underlying religiosity of a movement directly based on the ostinato from a Bach cantata.

     Jordan’s careful focus on every element of Brahms’ symphonies, the discovery and bringing-forth of lyrical beauties throughout the cycle, and the attentiveness to producing a sound that displays Brahms with considerably more clarity than his symphonies often receive, add up to a Brahms symphonic release that is not only excellently played but also thoughtful and emotionally convincing. It could certainly serve someone who does not own a Brahms complete-symphony box as an excellent choice. However, most classical-music listeners surely have one or more Brahms symphony compilations already. Yet even for them, there is enough that is distinctive and distinctly pleasurable in Jordan’s interpretations with the Wiener Symphoniker to make this a worthy addition to an existing collection.

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