Last year this recording of the Brahms Symphonies won the Gramophone Record of the Year and with every good reason. What is exciting is that when you have a closer look, it doesn't just contain the Brahms symphonies fabulous though they are. It is a treasure trove of Brahms's orchestral works including some very well known pieces such as the rip roaring Academic Festival Overture, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Hungarian Dances and orchestral transcriptions of some of his well known piano works. They are played by the oldest orchestra in Europe, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under the baton of the charimastic Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly. (Listen to clip of Academic Festival Overture on YouTube.)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was introduced to the world by Robert Schumann who described him in a very influential music journal "a youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood still". The young composer became famous as soon as the paper hit the news stands which had a profound effect on him as he felt the pressure and it all but stopped him from composing large scale works until his mid 40s. Brahms was a very harsh critic of his own work and had high standards, he also felt very intimidated by Beethoven's legacy "You have no idea what it is like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you".
Brahms's first symphony was introduced at last in 1876 and was arguably the greatest symphony since Beethoven's 9th which was first heard in 1824. However the second symphony was completed in a whirlwind of energy in 1877 following the premiere and success of the first. It is often described as conjuring up images of the countryside because he spent the months writing it in an Austrian resort town. Symphony No 3 was written six years after the second in between which he had written other orchestral works. Unusually for the first time all four movements end quietly perhaps showing the composer growing in confidence with his symphonic writings.
Symphony No 4 is a fantastic work and completed when the composer was 52 and approaching retirement. It shows him to be at his peak with his symphonic writing and is a deeply romantic work whose first movement grows from the simplest of materials. Brahms tried the work out on some close friends as a two piano piece but it was met with a devastating and uncomfortable silence and he said to a friend "I feel I've just been heaten up by two terribly intelligent people". As such Brahms was unsure the work would survive beyond it's first performance which he conducted, however, much to his surprise it received a positive reception. This is all hard to believe when the fourth symphony is regularly trotted out on concert programmes as a sure way to get bottoms on seats.
Reviews of this recording all say that Chailly is one of the few conductors who conduct all four symphonies equally well. David Mellor on Record Review, Classic FM said "Everything glows anew with bright colours. My album of the year". This is an excellent recording with a fresh view of Brahms's symphonies, it is also such a bonus to get all these other works on the same recording. The Academic Festival Overture is a particular favourite of mine.
Listen to Brahms Symphony No 4 first movement on YouTube.
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