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Dip Your Ears, No. 100 (Rattle and Brahms)

available at Amazon
J. Brahms, Symphonies
S.Rattle / Berlin Philharmonic

I might have skipped this release—the four Brahms Symphonies with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic—because EMI’s recordings with Rattle and his band have been such a mixed bag in the last years, vacillating between civilized boredom and indistinct, haphazard blandness. They rarely felt fully thought-through, much less labors of love. That may not apply to all of them, but to enough for that general impression.

I love Brahms’ Symphonies—but unlike with the symphonies of, say Bruckner, Mahler, or Beethoven, I’ve never entered a symphony-cycle collection race. The reason is largely Günter Wand’s traversal with the North German RSO (re-mastered on RCA) which so satisfies my every Brahms-craving that there simply wasn’t a need to go out of my way exploring every other possible venue. Sure, I also like Jochum/Berlin, Karajan/Berlin (70s), Szell/Cleveland, but even they don’t seem essential next to Wand. Rattle-Berlin, so I thought, certainly wasn’t going to change that.

But when I was in Amsterdam recently, several musicians from the Concertgebouw raved about that recording. Musicians hear recordings differently than the passive listener—especially, but not only, when their own recordings are concerned. And I don’t think their opinion is necessarily the measure of all things (mine is, of course!). But is there a better, more persuasive recommendation for Berlin’s new Brahms than hearing from RCO players—members of the alleged ‘world’s best orchestra’: “That’s how we would love to sound like. This is Brahms for the 21st century”?

And so it is. This is Brahms with racing stripes—not so much for speed (Rattle is very flexible and not out to set new records), but for full-bodied, sleek, high tuned performance. If the opening of the First puts a smile on your face with Günter Wand (RCA), this one wrings tears from your eyes, for its intensity bordering sophisticated brutality. It’s not cold Brahms, either. Certainly not where Rattle evokes Elgarian plush in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony. The way the discernable string waves enter beneath the brass and flute solos in the fourth movement is enough to make one wince, they’re so movingly played and so well captured. The recording (live) from the Berlin Philharmonic is magnificent: rich, present, detailed. Rattle’s Brahms bristles, puts effective but not ostentatious spotlights on the excellent soloists and does create a sound that reminds again why the Berliners are such a special orchestra. In case those who can only judge by their recordings should have forgotten.

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