Ten years on, Sir Simon Rattle seems to have calmed the waters with the Berlin naysayers. There were a few rough patches where his famously adventurous programming and change in the Berlin sound approaches of von Karajan and Abbado got him into hot water, with the concomitant calls for his ousting. Thankfully, these musical twits have been silenced by his continuing financial and musical successes. These days, the Berlin Phil is still top of the heap. The orchestra draws the finest players in the world and from the new HD view of its Digital Concert Hall, you’d be hard pressed to find an orchestra that plays as cohesively and so purely musical as this.
So, with several of the Rattle digital videos in my head and his magnificent Bruckner 7th 2008 Proms performance still fresh, I had great expectations for this new set of all four Brahms Symphonies.
In many ways, I was not disappointed. First, the orchestra maintains the Berlin Brahms tradition of rich sound, flawless tuning, characterful solos, and beautiful balances. It would not be out of place to say that many of the quiet string transitions are the best I have yet heard. So many subtle string figures get lost in the rush to get to the next big moment or tune. Rattle takes his time and the orchestra revels in the scrutiny of an aural microscope.
Tempos are pretty constant with mainstream thought, that is, they sound right to these ears. The magnificent melodies are allowed to unfold naturally and things tighten up as Brahms adds the tension towards the end of movements.
So, why do you need yet another Brahms symphony recording when Furtwangler’s Hamburg 1st, Bruno Walter’s 2nd and 3rd and Kleiber’s or Reiner’s 4th are still available? Well, you don’t really, unless you are a download kind of guy or want a single orchestra and interpretation for the cycle. Or, maybe you want it in the best sound? More of that later.
To be fair to Rattle, I think his interpretations will stand among the best. The aforementioned transitions, the familiar tempi, and the orchestral playing is pretty spectacular throughout. I also loved the way Rattle lets each movement unfold under it’s own weight — nothing is forced, nothing overt. Many times, you get conductors who ‘need’ to stamp something of themselves on the works. Brahms did some fantastically motivational work in this area. Follow his markings, get the bowings right, listen to one another, blend and play flawlessly in tune (mighty difficult in these symphonies, I should add), and then begin to think you can bring your musicianship to the works. As such, they are a damn tough nut to crack. Rattle does just this. Very subtle touches of ‘interpretation’ that add much to the proceedings. He allows the gorgeous phrasing of the players to shine throughout. That’s it Mr. Conductor, just get out of the way. Please! As Beecham would say, ‘they already know the damn piece ten times better than you!’.
So, caveats? Yes, some. The sound is not up to best I’ve heard from these sources. Rattle’s recent Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique is more open, has more ‘hall’. Even if the hall is the problematic Philharmonie. The sound is consistently ’studio bound’ throughout. There are many lovely moments for audiophiles, but if you are looking for a stalls seat, row 10, dead center, look elsewhere. Also, I was not impressed by the famous horn solo in the Finale of the First Symphony. Too reticent, not enough nobility. Usually, the two solo horns Radek Baborak and Stefan Dohr are unbelievable. Maybe Rattle was trying to have the louder horn match the quieter flute’s imitation.
Other than those (for me), significant blemishes, this set would be a fine addition for lovers of great orchestral playing and for those who love their Brahms straight with no chaser.
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