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Giving Brahms a HIP Replacement

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Brahms, Symphony No. 4 (inter alia), Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, J. E. Gardiner

(released on September 28, 2010)
SDG 705 | 70'52"
More worthwhile recordings continue to arrive from John Eliot Gardiner's "self-published" label Soli Deo Gloria, and not just Bach cantatas. This disc concludes Gardiner's cycle of the Brahms symphonies with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The recordings were captured live, with some touch-up, during a series of concert programs at London's Royal Festival Hall called "Brahms and his Antecedents," begun in 2007. Gardiner's concept was to place each of the symphonies within the context of Brahms's choral music and the historical music that influenced him. Gardiner's readings of the Brahms symphonies, on historical instruments, would not be my choice for the only version to own -- too many full-blooded Romantic versions out there. This disc gets a recommendation nonetheless for its history-minded approach, which gets at something fundamental to Brahms's thinking. Brahms worked as a chorus master and choir director in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and the influence of Bach and Renaissance music was important to the formation of his compositional style.

To make the case for the older music that marked Brahms, Gardiner programmed the fourth symphony with Beethoven's Coriolan overture, which is given a forthright, even forceful reading that says a lot about what Brahms was after in his own work. The earlier music selections, performed with accustomed suavity and incision by Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir, are much more in the conductor's wheelhouse. Schütz's Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich? and two movements from Bach's Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich shed light on one of Brahms's own sacred pieces, the achingly lovely Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauern, which uses a devotional text similar to the ones favored by Bach. Lass dich is one of my favorite pieces of liturgical music, performed often with the choir at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and Gardiner presents it in his own appropriately beautiful orchestration. Likewise, Giovanni Gabrieli's triple choir (12-part) Sanctus and Benedictus are imitated in Brahms's less fetching but still beautiful Fest- und Gedenksprüche, for unaccompanied double choir. That all of these selections are presented in a symmetrical order, with the Brahms work mirroring its corresponding model, adds to the pleasure of this disc, no less than the attractive, bound-book packaging.

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Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, G. Kühmeier, T. Hampson, Vienna Philharmonic, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, N. Harnoncourt

(released on February 1, 2011)
RCA/Sony 88697720662 | 72'01"
Gardiner will soon append a German Requiem to his Brahms symphony cycle (not sure if it will be a re-release of his earlier recording with the same forces), and it is the work that obviously rounds out the comparative series he put together. Nikolaus Harnoncourt has also released a new recording of the work, which is not quite as good as the sum of all of its rather splendid parts. It is an intriguing listen, which I enjoyed very much, but I am not convinced by it enough to recommend it except as an alternative curiosity. Thomas Hampson is, of course, a known quantity, and his puissant but sometimes mannered singing is, to my ears, a fine match for the baritone solos. Genia Kühmeier is lovingly but firmly maternal on the soprano solo that Brahms dedicated to his mother (at least as good as the celestial Arlene Auger in the first recording of the work I really loved, with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus -- at its current economy price still the one I would recommend first, with the more recent and more expensive recording by Philippe Herreweghe with the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées also high on my list).

Harnoncourt's approach is not standard HIP, as he stays close to the forces Brahms used at the work's premiere, that is, a rather large orchestra and chorus. The piece was intended for and has remained in the concert hall rather than the church, but there are indications that Brahms favored a smaller performing force than he had for the premiere. Harnoncourt focuses his "authentic" aims on the metronome markings that Brahms, rather unusually, attached to the movements of the German Requiem, as well as an attempt to recreate the rubato, sometimes intense but with a sense of "discretion," that Brahms envisioned. I am not an outright Harnoncourt detractor, but he is not one of the HIP conductors whom I really admire. His take on the German Requiem is a little deliberate, including some plodding tempo choices, as in the "Die Erlöseten des Herrn" section of the second movement. Likewise, Denn wir haben hier opens rather slow and quiet, and the sound of the last trumpet is similarly on the reserved side, tempo-wise, making its point with heavy accents and amassed sound rather than a driving pace. At times, the singers and orchestra are not always quite together, but all the components sound very good, and Harnoncourt's insistent touch brings out things like the brass statements of the fugue subject in the second movement. Low brass accents on that famous repeated pedal point in "Der gerechten Seelen," at the end of the third movement, give that music propulsion rather than the steady stasis often favored by other conductors.


MWnyc said...

Harnoncourt's approach is not standard HIP, as he stays close to the forces Brahms used at the work's premiere, that is, a rather large orchestra and chorus.

Charles, what exactly do you mean by "standard HIP" there?

Staying close to the forces the composer used at the work's premiere is exactly what HIP is about. How could Harnoncourt's doing that not be standard HIP?

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the question. This is the Vienna Philharmonic, rather than a period instrument ensemble: although the program notes mention some differences in the instruments used at the time of the premiere, I think that this is performed on modern instruments (albeit with minimal to no vibrato, which Harnoncourt favors). The point I was trying to make in the sentence you quote was that Harnoncourt does not actually have forces as large as Brahms did, a big ensemble but not the same scope. Of course, he is using many of the historical research techniques of the HIP movement, but slightly modified.