Arts: CD of the Day

BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO.4/ UNACCOMPANIED CHORUSES OP.74 NO.1, 109 AND 110 MDR CHOIR, LEIPZIG; LEIPZIG GEWANDHAUS ORCHESTRA/HERBERT BLOMSTEDT (DECCA 455 510-2, RECORDED 1996)

HERBERT BLOMSTEDT unfolds the drama of Brahms' Fourth Symphony like a sage relating a meaningful narrative. The opening is quiet - as marked - but with an underlying mobility that keeps the larger plan on permanent view. Blomstedt moulds the little surges and swells that shape the violin line while keeping violas and cellos well within earshot. It's a strong performance, too: forceful when the strings soar a few bars later, or when horns and woodwinds pronounce the choppy second subject. How refreshing to encounter a conductor who underlines without resorting to phrasal distortion, so that salient points of musical argument register anew and the frame still holds.

So much happens in this performance, especially around the first movement's eerie development section. Passages that in other performances fly past like a familiar work-day landscape suddenly assume new-found significance. The sensation is rather like switching from an InterCity to the local slow train, though choice of tempo is less crucial than telling observation and texture.

The playing of the Leipzig Gewandhaus is glorious, especially 7'47" into the first movement, when low strings swell as the principal theme develops; or 3'55" into the second, when cellos play "quietly and sweetly", with violas and second violins in affectionate attendance. The scherzo is muscular and bracing, and the finale's variations, strongly stated but flexible. The Fourth Symphony's catastrophic ending is a tough act to follow. Some conductors choose an overture, others nothing at all, but Blomstedt pulls an ingenious stroke by programming a choral setting of Job's despair. "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery," asks the Good Book - aptly, given the musical context - and Brahms responds by melding bleakness of mood with contrapuntal ingenuity. The MDR Choir sing superbly, then proceed through eight more short choral pieces, the "Fest und Gedenkspruche" showing Brahms' indebtedness to his earliest musical forbears. As with the Symphony, Decca's sound quality could hardly be bettered.

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