My (Current) Favorite Version of Brahms’ 4th Symphony

Brahms’ 4th Symphony

I started this blog writing extensively about Brahms’ 1st symphony, and why it means so much to me, and why to this day I’m still looking for my “perfect” version.

I’ve also reviewed Andris Nelsons’ excellent Brahms cycle with the Boston Symphony some time ago (5 stars). I’ve also found a favorite version of Brahms 2nd symphony

But I’ve never written explicitly about Brahms 4th symphony.

To me, there’s a clear (personal) hierarchy among the Brahms symphonies. The first will always come, well, first, the 2nd is still nice but I listen to it much more occasionally, the 3rd is beautiful, but has the super famous 3rd movement that has been a bit overused in popular culture. And then there’s the 4th symphony.

After all, this could actually be the greatest masterpiece of all of them. Why? Well, I’m just totally in awe of the fourth movement, which is basically just a set of variations on a very simple motif, a Passacaglia. I’ve written before how much I really appreciate variations these days, they are a true art form (even though it is something that one appreciates only after some learning), be it the Goldberg variations, the Diabelli Variations, or Brahms several other variations, like the Haydn or Händel variations.

Each one of these little variations in the 4th movement is such a gem, with an emotional depth (some say down to very deep despair) in a bit more than 9 minutes. And unlike most other symphonies, this symphony doesn’t end in happiness. It starts in the e-minor key, and ends in e-minor. Compare this to Brahms own first symphony where you start with the nearly menacing timpani but you end in a chorale that tells you that all will end well. Nothing ends well here.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not only the last movement that is fantastic. In this symphony there’s more than enough to discover in each of the movements. In comparison, Brahms’ 1st has a fantastic first and last movement, but the two in between feel more like an interlude.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Riccardo Chailly – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Decca 2013)

Brahms: The Symphonies Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Riccardo Chailly Decca 2013 24 96

So, now to my current favorite version of the 4th. I put the “current” in the title, as I always keep discovering and looking, and my taste clearly changes and evolves over time.

Before I get into Chailly’s excellent recording, a quick note on some other versions you should check out. Many critics will give you Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have a point. It really among the best. I’ve long been in love with Fritz Reiner’s beautiful reading with the Royal Philharmonic. Another all time classic is George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Side note: Szell takes the 4th movement much more slowly at 10:42 compared to Chailly’s 9:23, only to be exceeded by Karajan’s reading with 10:49, as well as Kurt Masur in 10:52).

If we look at the more contemporary versions, beyond the already mentioned Andris Nelsons, you should also check out John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed reading with his own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (I’m not totally convinced of his approach, but it is nevertheless quite insightful).

But now enough of the alternatives, here’s my current champion: Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester. By the way, this is not the first recording I love from Chailly in Leipzig, my favorite version ever of the Bruch violin concerto with Janine Jansen was recorded with this great team, and the same recording also features my favorite Mendelssohn violin concerto (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Chailly’s recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Nelson Freire is also one of my all-time favourites, and the complete Brahms’ serenades recording is also outstanding.

So why do I prefer Chailly over all the other versions mentioned? I’d say it is not one little thing, but a sum of all the small things. This recording just feels “right”, balanced, nuanced, going deep when it needs to, but still tightly controlled.

And this doesn’t only apply to the 4th symphony. As you can only get this as a box set (if you decide to buy and not to stream, which I strongly encourage you to do), you’d also need to know that all the other three symphonies are top notch. They are IMHO, together with Nelsons, the best contemporary set you can buy.

To compare the two: Nelsons & the BSO really go big, this really is Brahms in Cinemascope in the great tradition of Karajan. Chailly’s approach in pretty much all cases is a bit more nuanced and delicate. Both versions really have very strong merit, and you won’t be disappointed with any of them.

And on top of that, going back to Chailly, in this very reasonably priced set, you also get most of the other orchestral works that Brahms has written, e.g. the above mentioned Haydn-Variations, the Tragic Overture, the rarely played Liebeslieder Walzer, and even to wrap it up some of the famous Hungarian Dances.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My Favorite Recording of Bruch’s Violin Concerto

Max Bruch

I haven’t written a lot about Max Bruch yet. To be a bit more precise, there is not a single blog entry in 5 years that is dedicated to Max Bruch.

Why is that? Maybe because he’s the 19th century equivalent of the One Hit Wonder. Do you know any work beyond his violin concerto (which is to be precise his violin concerto no. 1, but nobody knows the two others)?

Maybe occasionally you’ll find a recording of Kol Nidrei, a orchestral work with a solo cello part. Even more rarely, you’ll get the Romance in F (sometimes coupled with the violin concerto no. 1).

And beyond this, you have to be a proper classical music buff, if you’ve heard his symphonies, his chamber music works, or even his choral works. All pretty much disappeared today. And by the way, not only today, even while he was alive, Bruch complained that he was always reduced to this work, and apparently became quite bitter about it.

Overall, he should probably not have complained to much, his violin concerto no. 1 is still considered part of the list of the 4 great German violin concertos, the others being Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.

So what triggered me to write about this concerto right now? Well a nice coincidence of two of the media I follow for classical music inspiration talked about it at the same time.

The first one is the Swiss radio program Disques en lice, from the French speaking part of Switzerland, which usually compares 6 versions of a given work, with 3 experts in a blind test. If you do speak French, I strongly encourage you to seek this program out, you’ll get it twice per week on their worldwide live stream (select Espace2) or if you are lucky enough to pass through Switzerland, you can even download the podcast (unfortunately the podcast has a rather strict geolocating feature).

So, as mentioned Disques en lice covered Bruch’s concerto on September 23, 2019. At the very same time, the most recent September issue of the French magazine Classica that I subscribe to on my iPad has a monthly section Ecoute en aveugle (blind listening) in which they go through pretty much the entire history of recordings of a given work, select what they believe are the 8 most promising ones, and then again proceed to a blind listening session comparing said 8 recordings.

So, which albums got selected?

Let me start with Disques en lice.

The host, Jean-Luc Rieder, had a hard time choosing, so ended up selecting 8 instead of the usual 6. So during the 2h30 of the program, we compared some legendary classics (Christian Ferras and Jascha Heifetz) from the 1950s, two recordings from the 1980s and 90s, Shlomo Mintz and Kyung-Wha Chung, and four more contemporary versions, notably Renaud Capuçon, Nicola Benedetti, Daniel Hope, and Janine Jansen.

Interestingly enough, the selection by the Classica reviewers Stéphanie-Marie Degand, Fabienne Bouvet and Michel le Naour ended up selecting a choice with only one overlap: Itzak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Maxim Vengerov, Ida Haendel, Isabelle van Keulen, Salvatore Accordo, and the overlap being Mintz.

Now, who won at Classica: the top 3 are Perlman (with Haitink), Stern (with Ormandy), and Milstein (with Barzin). As much as I usually agree with Classica’s reviews, I checked out the winning recording with Perlman, and really didn’t like it.

So, who then is my favourite recording you are going to ask after all this intro?

Well, while often I don’t agree with the winning choices of Disques en lice (I much prefer the winning recordings of the Swiss German equivalent by SRF2, Diskothek im 2.), in this particular case I fully agree with the winning album.

(And allow me to brag a little bit, I actually did recognise that recording blindly, together with my other favourite, Jascha Heifetz).

It turns out to be Janine Jansen’s excellent 2006 recording with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Janines Jansen Mendelssohn Bruch Concertos & Romance Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Decca 2006

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will have noticed that I’m a big fan of Janine Jansen, nearly as much as of Isabelle Faust. I’ve previously praised her fantastic recording of the Brahms violin concerto with Antonio Pappano, and have even heard her perform said Brahms concerto live with Herbert Blomstedt quiet recently.

This recording is just perfect to me. It combines the appropriate level of romantic engagement with Chailly’s perfect leadership of the magnificent Gewandhaus.

To be fully transparent, this isn’t the first time I write about this album. It is actually featured in my 25 Essential Classical Albums post, but I must admit I focused much more on her Mendelssohn recording in my comment there than on her equally outstanding Bruch.

So you get it, this album is an absolute must have.

And on top of one of the best ever recorded versions of Mendelssohn’s concerto, you even get Bruch’s Romance in F (op. 85).

My review: 5 stars plus…

You can find it here (Qobuz)