Simon Rattle conducts Brahms’s Symphonies No. 3 and 4

14 Nov 2008

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90 (41 min.)

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98 (45 min.)

As difficult as it was for Johannes Brahms on his path to the symphony, overshadowed by the giant Beethoven, after his C minor debut in this genre was presented to the public in 1876 the spell seemed to be broken. The Second Symphony already appeared during the following year, and Nos. 3 and 4 were also premiered in comparatively quick succession in 1883 and 1885. After that, Brahms composed only one more work for large orchestra, his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.

Thus, it is quite possible that the composer deliberately ended his symphonic work with the Fourth Symphony in E minor. His historical retrospection in the fourth movement, which takes up the Baroque model of the passacaglia, also suggests this. The unusually dense and intellectual conception initially caused the composer himself to doubt that it would find success with the public. With his characteristic odd self-irony he wrote to his close friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg: “In general my pieces are unfortunately more agreeable than I am, and one finds less in them to correct?! But in these parts the cherries do not become sweet and edible – so if the thing doesn’t taste good to you, don’t bother yourself about it.” Posterity did not confirm the composer’s scepticism – the Fourth Symphony has long been one of the most popular compositions in the concert repertoire.

During their in-depth exploration of Brahms, in this concert from November 2008 Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker played the composer’s Fourth Symphony before the Third. In his Third Symphony Brahms achieves the unity between movements that was considered obligatory since Beethoven’s Ninth by, among other things, bringing the opening motif of the first movement back at the end of the finale. The theme of the Poco allegretto achieved a certain prominence in popular culture: it not only served as the theme music in the Ingrid Bergman film Goodbye Again but was also quoted extensively in Carlos Santana’s song Love of My Life.

Brahms: Symphonies No. 3 & 4

It was near Wiesbaden in summer 1883 where the 50-year-old Johannes Brahms wrote his Third Symphony, 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 his 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 ultimately conducted 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.

Brahms spent the next two summers at idyllic Mürzzuschlag in the Austrian province of Styria, again dividing his days between walks and work on a new symphony. Although he made cryptic allusions to it when writing to friends, his FourthSymphony was announced only after he completed it, in August 1885 – and then rather sardonically, Brahms comparing it to the perennially sour cherries of Mürzzuschlag in a letter to his confidante Elisabet von Herzogenberg. Writing to Hans von Bülow, whose Meiningen court orchestra Brahms conducted in the symphony’s first performance on 25 October, he dismissed it as a “few entr’actes”. (The Berliner Philharmoniker premiere a few months later was conducted by Joseph Joachim.)

Frau von Herzogenberg, who initially had some difficulty comprehending the work, soon came to appreciate its beauties and its grandeur, and her letters to Brahms make a delightful introduction to his last symphony trans. Hannah Bryant: “I can now trace the hills and valleys of the opening Allegro non troppo so clearly that I have lost the impression of its being a complicated movement ... The lovely second subject sounds tender and transparent ... The coda is no less admirable ... all pressing forward to the close with such a fine impetus, lending the whole movement a massivity for which one is hardly prepared by the first subject.”

“The Andante has that freshness and distinction of character with which only you could endow it, and even you have had recourse to certain locked chambers of your soul for the first time ... How exquisitely melodious it all is! – the parting phrase of the theme in E major ... the beautiful way in which the second subject is ushered in by an abridged version of itself! How every cellist will revel in this glorious long drawn-out song breathing of summer! ... The close, too, is delicious, with its modulation to C, which carries one back so happily to the opening bars, with their tinge of the Phrygian mode ... We rise from this feast desiring an interval in which to attune ourselves for the irresistible rough humour of the Scherzo; but it is not long before we surrender heart and soul to its gaiety and impetus.”

“As for the last movement ... I am fascinated by the theme itself a repeated bass drawn by Brahms from Bach’s then unpublished Cantata 150 and the fascination grows as I follow it through its various phases, first in the bass, then in the top part or skilfully hidden somewhere in the middle ... Surely the movement will please an audience, too, even if they are unable to follow the passacaglia form: for there is no laborious weaving of the threads, but a succession of novel combinations ... One need not be a musician, thank Heaven, to come under the spell.”

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