In May of last year, Bernard Haitink conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in seasoned performances of Brahms's first two symphonies. Now he has completed the cycle at the Barbican as part of his own 75th-birthday season. And since the Third Symphony in F major and the Fourth in E minor are so strongly contrasted, yet appeared in such quick succession between 1883-85, it evidently seemed fitting to programme them in the same concert.
Whether this was done in Brahms's time seems doubtful. After the triumphs of the first two symphonies, the more ambiguous and elliptical Third was the least popular of the canon, while the severities of the Fourth initially perplexed even Brahms's musical friends. On the other hand, both scores are by now so relatively familiar to audiences that a conductor can take much for granted in pursuing his own vision.
Haitink's greatest strength has always been his long view, his ability to place and pace the major structural events in a piece so that it unfolds with a secure inevitability. When players are content merely to fill in the details in a routine way, his performances can leave a rather plain impression; where they seize the opportunities to inflect and characterise their parts to the full in the spaces that he opens up, readings can take off in amazing ways.
Not that his guidance is ever without its own unobtrusive surprises. On this occasion, the first three movements of the Fourth, so often loaded with expressive nuances and weighty sonority, were projected with relatively light, urgent textures and tempos. It was the Third Symphony that received the really grand treatment, stately in tempo till the finale, often wonderfully profound in sonority - Brahms's use of double bassoon tone to darken texture is never sufficiently praised - and cumulatively contoured. The true climax of the opening movement was held back to the launch of its coda (just as Sir Adrian Boult used to insist it should be), and the incandescent excitement of this moment was eventually matched by the headlong drama of the finale's central development to create twin pillars supporting the entire structure of the work. After such fullness of sound and meaning, it was quite difficult to adjust to the more glancing treatment of the Fourth.
But then it gradually became apparent that Haitink's strategy here was to treat the first three movements as structural upbeats to the magnificent finale, with its 32 variations unfolding over the inexorable repetitions of its bass line. One suspects that this movement, with its extremes of lyricism and drama gripped within the tightest discipline, is especially close to Haitink's heart. Contrasts were realised to the full without vagaries of tempo, and at the end, where Brahms finally breaks away from his bass line, the release of pent-up force came like an earthquake.