Friday, September 19, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #4

I've dealt with Brahms' Fourth once before in a recording by the Weiner Philharmoniker under Carlos Kleiber. Today's post will cover an alternate recording of Brahms' Fourth, and it will complete our journey through the Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of Brahms' complete symphonies.

Recall how I said that the simple act of picking up that Klieber disc, dusting it off and playing it made this entire blog worthwhile? Well, today's CD has helped me get to know Brahms' Fourth even more intimately. It's one of the greatest classical music works I've ever heard, and I'm starting to think it might be my favorite symphony of all time.

And I never knew it existed until I started this blog and began systematically working through my collection of classical music CDs.
Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies
Philips, 1989
We've talked before about how comparing different recordings of the same symphony is not only a great pleasure, but it can deepen your knowledge and familiarity with the music. This is a more advanced level of classical music exploration, and I hope you take time to try it out for yourself. Feel free to share your experiences with other readers in the comments section of this blog!

Listener Notes for Brahms' Fourth Symphony:
1) Have you noticed how the greatest symphonies of the Romantic era (usually thought of as the 1800s) are based on extremely simple melodies? Obviously the best example is Beethoven's Fifth and the four note "dut-dut-dut-dahhhhh" theme. But Brahms' Fourth is no exception, with a simple opening four note theme (dah-dum, dah-dum) that is the foundation of the entire first movement. It just goes to show that the composers who thrived on complexity (Bach and perhaps Mozart come to mind immediately) didn't have a monopoly on great music.

2) After you've listened to the first movement of Brahms' Fourth, doesn't it feel like you've listened to an entire symphony? There's so much drama and emotion and such a climactic conclusion to this single movement that it feels like an entire symphony packed into one brief movement.

3) The second movement of this symphony one of the most elegant, modest and beautiful works of classical music I've ever heard. One measure I use to judge a truly great composition is whether it still evokes a strong emotional reaction in me despite minor mistakes or errors in the performance. This movement is so elegant that the music washes over me--it almost subverts analysis. I hear, but don't really notice, the occasional minor mistakes in this recording.

4) Typical Brahms: Supposedly, when Brahms sent the score of the Fourth Symphony off to Hans von Bulow for a first look, he was "extremely insecure" about the reaction he'd get from the famous conductor. At this point in his life, Brahms had become wealthy off of the success of his compositions. He was literally a living monument in Vienna. And he had just completed a monumental symphony that would be miles beyond the capabilities of all but a few of history's greatest composers. And yet, to co-opt a modern phrase, he probably thought it sucked. This is the man, remember, who burned more than 100 of his earliest compositions.

What I'm finally beginning to learn from the story of Brahms is this: it might be good to be humble, but never judge yourself too harshly. You only hurt yourself, and more importantly, you'll be wrong.


chris said...

I am a big fan of comparing different recordings, I think it's fascinating how different they can be (Norrington vs. Furtwangler in Beethoven 9, Boulez vs. Knappertsbusch in Parsifal, etc).

What's the largest number of recordings you have of one work?

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Chris, thanks for your comment! I've really been enjoying this aspect of classical music, it's made writing this blog even more fun.

As to your question: I don't think I have more than two copies of any single classical music work.

Probably the next stage of my classical music journey will be to go "deeper" by acquiring multiple recordings of my favorite symphonies.

Thanks for reading!


Tom said...

Thanks for this great post on Brahms' 4th. I only started listening properly to Brahms' symphonies about a year ago, and at first, the 4th was my least favourite. But it's since overtaken all the others and is now my firm favourite of his.
The same thing happened with Beethoven's 8th - after being the symphony I rated least, it's ridden up my 'league table' to first place!

Speaking of those two symphonies I was excited to notice a real link - after about 1 minute of the first movement of the Beethoven, the mood suddenly changes and it goes very quiet and mysterious, with onimous diminished 7th arpeggios in the strings, but soon it comes back to a bright major climax. Almost the same thing happens in the Brahms' first movement just after half way through, shorly before the recap of the first theme. For me it's a really striking reference to the Beethoven, or maybe it's just coincidence?

Daniel Koontz said...

Thanks for your comment and for the positive vibes, Tom!

You might be onto something with that connection between those two symphonies. Certainly Brahms was all too aware of all of Beethoven's works when he was writing his own. I'll have to listen to them both and see for myself.

Thanks for reading!