Brahms - Symphony No 1 - Gardiner
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|Following on from John Eliot Gardiner's critically acclaimed recordings of the symphonies of Beethoven and Schumann, SDG are proud to b e releasing the first disc in a new series exporing teh music of Johannes Brahms. Recorded live during last autumn's Brahms and his antecedents tour, and showcasing the four symphonies as well as Brahms' major choral works, this series is an important milestond for SDG heralding teh development of the label beyond the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and teh REnaissance choral repertoire which have so far dominated its catlogue. Brahms' large-scale music is brimful of vigour, drama and a driving passion - says John Eliot Gardiner in his introductory notes. One way to release these characteristis is, for the conductor, to set his symphonies in the context of his own superb and often neglected choral music, and that of the old masters he particularly cherishede and studied (Schutz and Bach especially) and of recen heroes of his (Mendelssoh, Schubert, and Schumann). This way, says Gardiner, we are able to gain a new perspective on his symphonic compositions, drawing attention to the intrinsic vocality at the heart of his writing for orchestra. Composing such substantial choral works as Schicksalslied, which also features on this release, gave Brahms invaluable experience of orchestral writing years before he brought his first symphony to fruition. Solemnity, pathos, terror and jubilation are all experienced and encapsulated before they come to a head in the finale of the first symphony. |
Composer: Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
Orchestra/Ensemble: Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
"at last we are hearing Brahms with a difference" – Andrew Clark, The Financial Times
"A daring and thought-provoking rendition of the First Symphony ended a concert which was in every way a thrilling beginning" – Hilary Finch, The Times
'Despite Gardiner's stellar reputation as an early music specialist Brahms might be his real musical soulmate' Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph
Ivan Hewett reviews Monteverdi Choir/ORR/Gardiner at Festival Hall
In A culture devoted to the instant fix, trying to entice people into the subtle but slow pleasures of exploring a composer's links to the past can't be easy.
Still, John Eliot Gardiner might have come up with something a bit better than Brahms and His Antecedents as the title of these two concerts given with his own Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique.
It sounds like a title for a graduate seminar, and, indeed, when Sir John stalked on stage with his wintry headmaster's smile, I did wonder whether we might be in for a short test before being allowed to hear the music.
However, under a crusty grey-haired exterior there often beats a romantic heart. That was certainly the case with old Brahms himself, who hid so much nostalgia and frustrated yearning behind that prickly bearded visage.
In these two concerts, we heard two major works of Brahms, the First Symphony and Requiem, plus the wonderful, rarely heard Begrabnisgesang, ("Funeral Song").
The choral pieces were more impressive, not least because of the astonishing rich-grained sound of the Monteverdi Choir, above all the men. But everything was lifted above the ordinary by the tangy sound of the "period" instruments and Gardiner's attention to the music's intricate inner details.
This would have been a rich experience on its own. But woven in among the Brahms pieces were examples of the great German tradition that nurtured him. There were sacred pieces by Schutz, born 100 years before Bach, plus a cantata by Bach himself, and in the second concert some choral rarities from Schubert, who died five years before Brahms was born.
Hearing them together was a revelation; it was as if all the pieces were calling to each other across the centuries. The solemn brass of Schutz found an echo in Brahms's First Symphony, the dusky mysteriousness of the low strings in Schubert's Song of the Spirit Over the Waters returned at the beginning of Brahms's Requiem.
There was a time when Gardiner was too clipped and disciplined a musician to allow all this expressive complication to shine through, but over the years he's mellowed. The energy and dramatic flair is still there, but tempered by a romanticism that's often surprisingly overt.
It made me wonder whether, despite Gardiner's stellar reputation as an early music specialist, Brahms might be his real musical soulmate.
The Guardian : Andrew Clements / Friday 3 October 2008.
This weekend at the Royal Festival Hall in London, John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique complete their Brahms project with the Third and Fourth Symphonies, performed within the context of choral works both by Brahms himself and by earlier composers whom he admired. This first disc brings together performances from the beginning of the cycle a year ago: recordings of the First Symphony, Schicksalslied and the rarely heard early work Begrabnisgesang, as well as Mendelssohn's equally unusual Mitten Wir im Leben, all taken from concerts in the Festival Hall and the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The mix works as well on disc as it did live; Gardiner's period-instrument textures and no-nonsense tempos buoy up music that can too easily get bogged down. The disc is beautifully packaged, and the accompanying notes include an interesting exchange on Brahms between Gardiner and composer Hugh Wood. A good start to what promises to be a fascinating series.
musicalcriticism : Dominic McHugh / 19 September 2008.
Ever since Sir John Eliot Gardiner set up his Soli Deo Gloria record label to release his complete account of the Bach Cantatas (the 'Bach Pilgrimage' of the year 2000) after being dropped by Deutsche Grammophon, there was always going to be a question about whether the label could sustain interest and produce anything beyond the Bach series.
This new venture answers it with a positive 'yes'. Perhaps it helps that SDG has again embarked on a multi-unit project, albeit not on the scale of the Bach Pilgrimage, and that again Gardiner has opted for one of the 'three Bs' of German music. Last year, he launched a concert series with his 'other' ensemble, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, plus the Monteverdi Choir once more, to explore Brahms' four symphonies.
But as is typical of Gardiner, he's not content to see the works in an artistic vacuum and has instead set them in a thought-provoking context. Brahms and His Antecedents spreads the symphonies over four programmes, two last year and two this coming autumn, and combines the symphonies with vocal music by both Brahms and the composers that inspired him. So, for instance, Bach is included in some of the programmes to acknowledge Brahms' concerns with classicism and in particular, the fact that he was both 'oppressed by and in love with the past, but not defeated by it' (a quotation from Hugh Wood, whose interview with Gardiner appears in the CD's hardback 'book' presentation cover).
What's particularly moving about Gardiner's approach to the music is the way in which he portrays Brahms as actively using the possibilities of learned music to create something utterly new, rather than being tortured in a straightjacket by the shadows of past masters. Examples cited are the double-choir motet of Mendelssohn, Mitten wir in Leben, with which Gardiner sees parallels in Brahms' use of separate 'choirs' of winds and strings in invertible counterpoint in the first movement of Symphony No 1, and in a more general sense, the notion that Brahms follows Bach in seeing counterpoint as an emotional process – 'the child of passion, not calculation'.
The first item on the CD is Brahms' Begrabnisgesang, Op. 13, which was written in 1858 during the composition of the German Requiem and is seen by Gardiner as a prototype for the better-known large-scale work. In both the performance and his liner interview, the conductor points towards the work's inbuilt tension, namely the fact that Brahms combined the first line of the melody of one of Luther's most popular hymns ('Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort') with the words of a different hymn by Michael Weisse. This causes a change in the stresses of the musical beats and the metre of the text, and promotes a view of Brahms as a subversive. The Monteverdi Choir communicates this well in the first stanza, but it's the second and third, with their growing textures and throbbing timpani beats (a fore-runner to the opening of the First Symphony), that make the impact.
Completed a few years before Brahms' birth, Mendelssohn's Mitten wir in Leben from Drei Kirchenmusiken, Op. 23, provides ideal material for the Monteverdi Choir, singing a cappella. The control and dynamic range are excellent, providing vigour in the fourth stanza and an exquisite, hushed delivery of the final 'Kyrie eleison'.
Of the choral works, it's Brahms' magnificently-sung Schicksalslied, Op. 54, that makes the greatest impact. Somehow, the sense of apotheosis felt even in the opening orchestral statement makes the music seem more personal. Perhaps more significantly, it also contains many of the same colours as the First Symphony, and the association of certain orchestral gestures with elements of the text – high woodwind with the 'blessed genies' wandering 'above in the light on soft ground', gently ascending strings on the image of 'the fingers of the player' brushing lightly 'on her holy strings' – also posits a semiotic connection with the supposedly 'absolute' symphony.
Which leads to Op. 68 itself, the longest work on the disc. For me, the first movement generates an awe-inspiring tension that is occasionally lost in the middle movements and is only regained in the finale. The ORR responds magnificently to Gardiner's visceral approach, with the natural horns adding a fruitiness not always found in performances of the work. The strings are especially alert in the opening movement, and the disparate timbres of the period woodwind instruments helps draw attention to their lines. Expressive though the second movement is, however, it loses momentum in places, and for me some of the dynamics aren't carried out as indicated in the score (is there really a noticeable change from pianissimo to forte from the fourth to the sixth bar?). There are also some routinised moments in the third movement, though these are offset by the sensitivity of the string playing throughout. The gloriously biting finale brings everything back into focus, not least during the nimbly-negotiated variations section, which matches the finest accounts on record.
While studio accounts of the symphony are numerous, this new addition to the discography is surely a serious competitor thanks to the pedagogical aspect provided by the choral items. Future instalments in the series are greatly anticipated, if this one is anything to go by.
1. Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13
2. Sacred Pieces (3), Op. 23: no 3, Mitten wir im Leben sind by Felix Mendelssohn
3. Song of Destiny, Op. 54
Symphony No. 1 in C minor
4. 1. Un poco sostenuto - Allegro
5. 2. Andante sostenuto
6. 3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
7. 4. Adagio - Più andante - Allegro non troppo, ma con brio