• Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 3 (42:14)

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 10 (01:00:38)

This piece not only has a special history regarding its reception. Perhaps the brightest in the tetralogy, Johannes Brahms’ Third Symphony played an important role as a psychological phenomena for the Berliner Philharmoniker. The work was one of Herbert von Karajan’s favourites, and when Claudio Abbado added it to the concert programme shortly after Karajan’s death, he not only stunned his Berlin audience, but also the orchestra – with a melodious act of emancipation, as it were. Now Simon Rattle certainly doesn’t need to convince anyone of his affinity for Brahms. This is why it is an outright delight that he selected the Symphony in F Major for the opening concert for the programme of the 2008/2009 season. The Berliner Philharmoniker and their principle conductor interpret the opus in the Philharmonie, presenting with it another piece with a long and eventful history: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

Brahms’s Third Symphony

It was near Wiesbaden in summer 1883 where the 50-year-old composer wrote his Symphony No.3, working during the morning hours while devoting afternoons to longs walks in the lovely surrounding country. Not until he returned to Vienna did friends and colleagues learn of Brahms’s first symphony in six years. Following private performances of a two-piano reduction for his circle of friends, the Third had its triumphant premiere in Vienna on 2 December.

Berlin didn’t have to wait long to hear the new work. Already that summer Franz Wüllner, director of the recently established Berlin Philharmonic subscription concerts, became the composer’s first friend to see the score, and he immediately expressed interest in introducing it to the German capital. But Brahms also offered it to a still closer friend, the Berlin-based violinist-teacher-conductor Joseph Joachim, and it was Joachim who ended up conducting the local premiere, on 4 January 1884 at the Academy of Arts. A few weeks later, after playing his First Piano Concerto, Brahms himself took the baton from Wüllner to conduct the rapturously received first Berliner Philharmoniker performance of the Third Symphony – the audience stormily demanded an encore of the third movement. It wasn’t until the following season that Wüllner finally got to conduct the piece.

The Third is the shortest, most concentrated and thematically unified of Brahms’s four symphonies. It opens with rising wind chords outlining the composer’s famous F-A-F (“frei aber froh” – “free but happy”) motto, which pervades the entire first movement in myriad guises – the broad descending main theme that follows is supported by the “F-A-F” motto, moved down to form the bass line – and makes a decisive, calming appearance at the end of the turbulent finale.

The two inner movements are tranquil interludes: an Andante that begins gently on pastoral woodwinds, with a solemn second theme on clarinet and bassoon that becomes increasingly important and plays a vital role in the last movement; then an introspective Poco allegretto in minor, with a hauntingly lovely theme introduced by cellos.

The dramatic finale of this F major symphony is, surprisingly, also in minor. Towards the end, the motto and main theme of the first movement, ushered in by the solemn theme from the Andante, return to bring this remarkable work to a peaceful close.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony

The 19th-century antagonism in German music between supporters of Wagner and Brahms could be vicious, but it never became a matter of life and death as did the struggle of Soviet composers against their political environment. No life epitomized that struggle more than Dmitri Shostakovich’s. His first major collision with the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism came in 1936 when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was condemned for its “negative” tendencies. Shostakovich’s famous response was his Fifth Symphony, which he called “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”.

After his Eighth and Ninth symphonies were subjected to the same harsh scrutiny, which flared up again after World War II, Shostakovich turned away from this public form for eight years in favour of the more private genres of string quartet and piano music. It was not until 1953 that he composed his Tenth Symphony, mostly during the summer months, not long after Stalin’s death (though the outer movements may date from 1951, implying that the composer had withheld it for fear of another official attack). The premiere on 17 December 1953 of this massively powerful work, intended “to convey human emotions and passions”, with Shostakovich champion Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, was a huge success with the public and fellow composers and musicians but, again, not with Party officials.

A few months later Shostakovich delivered a peculiarly unconvincing apology at the Composers’ Union, claiming he had written the symphony quickly (though that was how he always worked) and pointing out supposed flaws in its proportions. The vast first movement – one of his most powerful symphonic creations – shows the influence of Mahler, a direct quote from whose orchestral song “Urlicht” (at the words “Der Mensch liegt in größter Not” – “Man lies in direst need”) is the basis of its principal theme. This complex, archlike sonata form begins hesitatingly and ends in quiet desolation, but in its middle section builds inexorably to a terrifying climax.

The brief Scherzo (second movement) is a furious depiction of evil (if not necessarily a portrait of Stalin, as claimed by Shostakovich’s controversial biographer Solomon Volkov), while the life-affirming force of the artist himself dominates the third and fourth movements in the guise of another famous composer’s motto, the musical signature D-S-C-H (D, E flat, C, B), which resounds triumphantly at the very end of the work (perhaps a nod to “socialist realism”). When asked if the Tenth Symphony had a programme, Shostakovich cryptically replied that “listeners must determine that for themselves”.

Soon taken up by conductors and orchestras in the Soviet Union and abroad, the Tenth became one of his most frequently played and most highly regarded works. Among its outstanding interpreters was Herbert von Karajan, who first performed it with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1959, and with his orchestra in 1966 made a benchmark recording of a symphony he considered one of the great representative masterpieces of the age.

EMISir Simon Rattle appears by kind permission of EMI Classics.

Try out the Digital Concert Hall

Try out the Digital Concert Hall

Watch a free full-length concert of Sir Simon Rattle conducting Mahler's 1st and Beethoven's 4th symphonies.

Watch concert for free