The pounding Adagio opening of the First Symphony (1877) contains the seeds of what is to come. The Allegro’s rhythmic drive propels the movement to its end. The second movement reveals the Romantic Brahms, hinting at feelings understood but unspoken.
The third movement prominently features one of Brahms’ favourite instruments, the clarinet, which is given a carefree, open-air theme. Its freshness and flowing lines continue the mood throughout.
The most dramatic moment in the finale comes with the sunburst of a theme on the horn, and a noble brass chorale. Then, a glorious, long-breathed melody, reminiscent, perhaps, of Beethoven’s ‘Joy’ theme in his Ninth Symphony.
At the earliest opportunity, Brahms set to work on his Second Symphony (1878). It was completed in four summer months in the mountains and lakes of Carinthia. His genial mood is reflected in the generally untroubled mood of the symphony.
The first movement starts off as if Brahms has recovered his youth. The second movement is the longest and perhaps the loveliest of his symphonic slow movements. The third movement is another symphonic intermezzo, its shifting rhythms adding to the charm. The last movement is full of gaiety.
Both First and Second Symphonies display Brahms’ endless inventiveness in building symphonic structures out of ever-evolving themes, a symphonic form that is original yet derived from his predecessors in Vienna, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven .
These qualities are even further refined, and to powerful effect, in the Third Symphony (1884). It is an even more dynamic, more concentrated work than the previous two, its emotional charge even more affecting for being so focused.
The impetus of the opening bars drives the first movement to the very end. The violins’ theme has special resonance, for it is based on a theme from the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony by his late friend, Robert Schumann. The second movement is a gentle idyll, the phrasing constantly free and varied, Brahms again giving the clarinet a prominent role. In the third movement, the sense of yearning is almost unbearable.
The remarkable finale is in turn heroic, lyrical, then seemingly hesitant. Instead of an assertive, confident ending, Brahms reins everything back: the mood is one of leave-taking.
Brahms embarked on his Fourth Symphony (1886) with some trepidation. Under this self-imposed pressure he composed the most powerful of his symphonies. The first movement has a sinewy muscularity and a dark nobility. The second, an intermezzo, is profoundly expressive, with some of the finest orchestration in any of his music. With the third movement the whole mood and tonal landscape lightens, a much needed contrast to the first two movements.
The fourth movement is one of the greatest finales in the whole of symphonic music. Brahms’ great hero was J.S. Bach: here, he turns to one of Bach’s favourite forms, a chaconne. This is a series of variations over a repeated bass line, and it allows for freedom of invention within a defined structure. The opening bars proclaim the theme which is no less than one used by Bach in one of his cantatas. This movement is the culmination of Brahms’ symphonic journey, employing to the full all his creative powers. The effect is overwhelming. It was enough, and he never attempted another symphony.
Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn (1874) are a much lighter affair. Based on a charming tune called “Chorale St. Antoni”, it began life as a work for two pianos but was later recast for orchestra. It is a lovely work, with none of the storm and stress of the symphonies which followed it. The opening is Haydnesque in manner, and as the work progresses it pays tribute to Beethoven, ending with a nod to Bach. It is nonetheless Brahmsian in every way, and could be by no other composer.
Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1946) began his musical life as a prolific composer. It was as an interpreter, however, that his exceptional gifts revealed themselves. In 1922 he was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. He remained loyal to the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the Nazi era: inevitably, this was construed as loyalty to Nazism. In fact, he never joined the Party and did what he could to oppose the regime. His great flaw was naivety. He believed that he could keep music separate from politics and that he had a duty as an artist to preserve music in Germany. He finally fled Germany in January 1945 to escape impending arrest. Officially ‘de-nazified’, he resumed his international career. Each Furtwängler performance had an improvisatory quality, inspiring his orchestra play at white heat. This incandescent quality of Furtwängler’s performances is preserved in his recordings. These have ensured that his genius as an interpreter, especially of the German repertoire, remains supreme.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe