Brahms to Live By

Many new recordings claim to shine new light on or breathe new life into oft-performed masterworks, and allow the listener to hear them again as if for the first time.  But few actually do.  Here’s one that really does:  Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig in the Symphonies and other orchestral works of Johannes Brahms.

Do we really need a new set of Brahms Symphonies?  Considering the immortal performances we can already choose from, by such conductors as Arturo Toscanini, George Szell, Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Günter Wand (a particular favorite), and the many splendid available renditions of individual symphonies (e.g, the 4th with Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic), mostly not.  Every year, it seems, a new Brahms set comes, a new Brahms set goes, little or nothing new is revealed about these great works, and the perennial favorites remain unchallenged.   Heck, we even have a fine earlier set by Maestro Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one which alreadly featured some of the qualities of Chailly’s new traversal.  But as is the case with all other fields of endeavor, whether music, wine or baseball, there’s always room for excellence.  So, make way, old standbys, a new contender is in your midst.

All right then, what makes the Chailly/Gewandhaus set so new?  Well, right from the opening of the Symphony No. 1, there’s the orchestral sonority.  Rich, sleek, clear, focused, balanced, the sound of the orchestra, brilliantly captured by the Decca engineers, is worth the price of the set itself, and one of the finest I’ve ever heard on an orchestral recording.  The strings play as if one, with enough vibrato to enrich the tone but not so much as to thicken it.  The winds sing sweetly, with just the right measure of central European woodiness.  The horns, so crucial to the Brahms sonority, move from mellow to brassy at the drop of a downbeat, with the rest of the brass, from trumpets to tuba, sporting round, slightly dark and never strident tones .  Blended together by a master conductor, the Gewandhaus becomes the perfect Brahms instrument.  I wonder whether even Brahms himself ever heard a more ideal sound?

The essential rightness of the sound is matched by the pacing of the music as well.  On the speedometer, Chailly’s tempos would be slightly faster than average, but I can’t think of one time where the tempo sounded pushed or forced.  Of course, it’s not at what tempo you play the music, it’s how you play it at that tempo.  And as we’ve heard from some of those who’ve attempted to conduct Brahms “his” way and on instruments from his time (I’m thinking especially of Sir Roger Norrington), even the sprightliest tempo sounds stodgy when enforced inflexibly and metronomicaly.  Chailly?  Flexibility personified.  Every line shaped, every phrase considered, the music flows as naturally as speech, but also as unpredictably as a stream.  You’re drawn into the music, as if it were an unfolding drama — which, of course, it is — and never let down for a moment.   Mind you, these are not the only ways to play the Brahms Symphonies.  But, as is the hallmark of great performances, while your listening to Chailly and the Gewandhaus, you’re convinced that this is how these works were meant to go.

Why can’t all performances of all music be this good?  Alas, even in the highest strata of classical music, there’s good, there’s better and there’s best.  And when you hear the best, it’s something to celebrate.  So, let’s gather ’round the radio Friday afternoon at 1:00 for the Brahms Symphony No. 2 from the new set, with Nos. 3 and 4 coming up Monday and Tuesday at the same time.  Don’t worry about the First, which we’ll also repeat for you next week.

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