Brahms: The Symphonies—Daniel Barenboim

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I began this review period disliking much of what I heard from the first, casual run through of this new set of Brahms Symphonies by Daniel Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin. My ears were perked, but the style was not what I was used to.  

A few weeks later, with many cycles heard under my belt, I felt far more comfortable with Barenboim’s very Romantic and 'urtext'  approach.  

Some of my initial reservations were clouded by my reverence for the Brahms of Karajan and Joachim—full bodied and played with a Ferrari orchestra, the Berlin Phil. 

Over the ‘wall’ from the Philharmonie, the 500 year old Staatskapelle has weathered tyrants and kings, and worst, GDR bureaucrats. But its cultured sound remains—the history lives on. Much of the later, Cinderella part of the story belongs to Barenboim, one of the greatest musicians of the past 50 years. When shunned by the Berlin Phil for directorship after Abaddo, he focussed on his other Berlin orchestra and has thrust them into international prominence. 

Much of the press has gone gaga on just about everything they do. Bringing Elgar to London was just about too much for the Brits. Swoon! That said, it had never been played so well. But the orchestra is not bulletproof, as shown under headphone scrutiny of its Wagner Proms a few years ago. While The Times and Telegraph were overcome with flowery prose about 'perfection', I heard lots of gaffes. But Barenboim's vision was uniquely his. Even without sets, acting and costumes, it was drama!

The same can be said for his new Brahms set. His interpretations look back to Furtwängler, the playing back to Prussia. Never will you hear such drama in diminuendos, the slightest tremolo in the cellos and basses recorded down to microscopic levels. Every note of Brahms counts. Well, of course they do, but after umpteen sessions playing them or conducting them, things go amiss or lose sparkle. Naturally. Not here with Barenboim. A solo marked by Brahms as 'sempre f', is no more than a forte. Not a 'solo' forte. Not a snazzy solo horn spiralling. Forte. That's your lot!

A few things to note—listen carefully to the gloriously quiet chords at the ends of slow movements. You don't get flawless tuning like this every day. And I mean flawless. Not one woodwind out of balance or one micro cycle out of (relative) pitch. Also, the timpanist seems to be on a high. His playing is excellent, but so overwrought in places. And, dare I say, his rolls are unbalanced. A small quibble in an otherwise beautifully played set (other than the interesting clarinet tone which is more British Boosey 10/10 style than German System). 

Other than the splendid playing and exceptional recording (lots of Barenboim stomping for those with subwoofers), what you'll buy this set for is the exemplary and musical interpretations. Barenboim will surprise you in a good way at every turn—no ridiculous, agogic distortions telling the listener, 'hey look, I'm a conductor'. Everything sounds very natural, even the slight unmarked ritardando after the First Symphony's massive intro and the Third Symphony's slow tempo in the finale.

When listening for all the big tunes and incredible climaxes (odd bar change in climax of 3rd's first movement—different version?), don't forget to listen carefully to all the very quiet ends of phrases. For Barenboim, that's where a lot of the magic is. 

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Symphonies 1-4

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Int. Release 24 Aug. 2018

4 CDs

0289 483 5251 7