Monday, May 12, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #4

I just finished listening to a symphony that has, at a stroke, made this entire blog worth every minute I've spent writing it.

This CD of Brahms 4th Symphony has been sitting on the top shelf of my CD rack, collecting dust, for at least two years. I've never once listened to it until now. And I cannot believe I've let this amazing work lie fallow in my home without even knowing it.

And now I have a new all-time favorite Brahms symphony.
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Carlos Kleiber and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony #4
Deutsche Grammophon, 1981
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This symphony is so haunting and beautiful that I had to listen to it a second time immediately after the first.

I find the contrast between Brahms' first two symphonies and his fourth particularly interesting. His first two symphonies seem structured and formal, in the style of Beethoven's symphonies (note that this is not an original thought--most serious classical music commentators would agree with this assertion).

Brahms' Fourth Symphony, however, is music of an entirely different style and era. I'll submit to you one brief example: you could easily convince me that the second movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony was written by Mahler--a composer who to some extent was a contemporary of Brahms, but who wrote much more florid and lyrical music.

Two brief listener notes:

1) Listen to the eight chords played at the very beginning of the fourth movement, and then listen to how the rest of the movement is built around wildly different variations on that theme. This musical form is called a passacaglia.

2) Notice the decidedly un-Beethovenian style ending, yet another clear example of how Brahms made a stylistic break from his symphonic idol. The Fourth symphony resolves itself quickly--it just ends, almost unceremoniously. There's no 25-second series of repeated fifths and octaves like the melodramatic ending of Brahms' First Symphony, or for that matter any of Beethoven's symphonies.

I can't wait to listen to Brahms' Third.



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