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Chailly’s Brahms Symphonies

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Jeremy Lee writes

Not too long ago Leonard raved on a recent release of Brahms’ two Serenades by Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which he deemed his favorite (review here).  Now we come to the centerpiece of Chailly’s recent Brahms series, the Symphonies (and other orchestral works).

Unlike the Serenades or the Piano Concertos (a tremendous achievement with Freire recorded back in 2006), Chailly’s Brahms symphony cycle is a remake, supplanting his 1990s cycle with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (reissued by Decca in a budget 3CD box that contains only the Academic Festival Overture in addition to the symphonies), a cycle that has gone all but unnoticed, and deservedly so–well recorded, well played yet almost completely faceless, there was nothing about that cycle that caught the attention of listeners who wanted great, insightful Brahms instead of good, ordinary Brahms, in addition to the fact that Decca didn’t promote it much.  With these new, fervently promoted recordings dating from 2012 and 2013, Chailly has almost completely rethought his approach to the music.  Always a scrupulously detail-oriented conductor (a trait that has become increasingly pronounced as he aged), Chailly purports to reveal subtleties in the score hitherto unnoticed by others and (as the clichés go) shine a new light on/dust the cobwebs off this much-vaunted, much-loved quadrumvirate of symphonic achievement.

Yet, starting with the Second Symphony, it seems that Chailly has overdone it a bit.  Brahms’ Second is possibly the most simplistic, untroubled of the four, yet you’ll never sense that with Chailly’s approach.  Like Rattle in his Brahms cycle, Chailly has an annoying tendency in this symphony to micromanage textures, dynamics, articulation and the like, but unlike Rattle, all of Chailly’s adjustments are based on stringent adherence to each and every atom of the score.  While I respect what Chailly is trying to do, some new details are so deliberately revealed to the extent that it both interrupts the organic flow of the music and draws attention to itself–in short, it works against, not for, the music.  In the very swift first movement (17:49 with exposition repeat), Chailly emphasizes the Allegro over the Non Troppo and treats it as a real symphonic first movement Allegro, bringing real sweep and sense of purpose to the movement especially when taking the whole symphony into account, and there are some details in the bass lines, such as the sinister grindings of the lower strings at M, that work well to propel the music towards its climax four bars later.  Unfortunately the horn solo that follows straight after is choppily phrased, timbrally crude when it gets to the climax and shoots out of the accompaniment too soon and too prominently instead of riding above a cushion of strings–compare it with, say, Giulini/VPO and note the difference between honest, unaffected, flowing playing and forced, wilful, crass playing.

In the second movement, also taken at a very swift tempo (8:26 while most others take more than 9 minutes), the opening cello phrase gets quite fussy with the chopped-up articulation in bar 3, impeding with the natural flow (note that the articulation, while dotted, still bears a long slur on top).  Thankfully, that’s the only problem in a movement which otherwise goes quite well, and equally thankfully the third movement is free from self-conscious mannerisms, played vigorously and rustically by the inimitably dark-sounding woodwinds of the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Yet this same timbral trait that benefited the third movement is one of the factors that completely sank the performance of the Finale, though I feel that the root of the problem is not the orchestra, but Brahms.  The structure of this symphony is unlike the rest of the symphonies in that it contains three idyllic, soothing, flowing, melodic, dark opening movements with a bright, dramatic, vigorous and rhythmic finale tacked at the end, and as much as I love Brahms and his music, I still feel that this design is innately incongruous and as a result flawed.  And therein lies the problem:  what orchestra can manage a dark, luxurious timbre in the first three movements and then suddenly about-facing to deliver a bright and peppy sound in the finale?  As I see it, this is a problem independent of the interpretation:  Solti, for example, envisioned a truly relaxing first 75% and a fantastically kinetic final 25% (courtesy of the Chicago brass), but the Chicago Symphony was and remains a bright, brash-sounding ensemble whose string and woodwind timbres simply did not match Solti’s–and Brahms’–vision.  As it stands, taking both interpretation and orchestral timbre into account, very few recordings I have heard manage all four movements equally successfully (Karajan’s late 1970s performance was one).  Back to the review:  compare the various woodwind detail at, say, 2 bars before F or bar 101 in this Gewandhaus recording and Chailly’s old Concertgebouw recording and you will immediately hear the difference.  The bright, crisp Concertgebouw woodwinds come to the fore effortlessly; the dark, luxurious Gewandhaus woodwinds, on the other hand, struggle to do so.  Having said that, some of the problems in the Finale also concern Chailly.  It’s certainly his fault that he doesn’t insist that the string/woodwind interchanges in bars 101 and 109 operate on the same dynamic level (thereby compromising communicativeness and sense of dialog), that some imprecise woodwind work was left uncorrected, that for some strange reason in the same place (bar 101) the dotted accompaniments in the strings happen to be louder than both the melody in the woodwinds and their own melody regained from the woodwinds two bars later, or that the trombone blast at the very end dips below the dynamic level of the orchestral tutti that launched it into motion (admittedly few recordings have trombones that manage this).

In a nutshell, this is a frustrating Brahms 2, the only real disappointment in a cycle which otherwise happens to be not bad at all.  The dark Brahmsian timbres of the Gewandhausorchester suit the other symphonies to a hilt, and mercifully Chailly doesn’t seem to be as fussy with tiny details as he was in the Second.  The opening of the First may have had more imposing, weighty interpretations, but Chailly’s ability to layer and clarify the textures is revealing, and so is the ensuing Allegro.  The second movement, graced with a beautifully played violin solo, is relaxing as always, though some shadier details don’t go unnoticed (that horn gestopf at bar 3 is a mastertouch), and the third movement, like the third movement of the second, features gorgeous woodwind playing.  The monumental finale, starting exactly in tempo, bears some impeccably precise string pizzicato accelerandos and a big-hearted horn solo that, while prominent and ringing, doesn’t degenerate into that kind of crudeness we heard in the coda of Brahms 2 first movement.  At letter M, I particularly admire the way Chailly brings out the melody, first in the horns, then the clarinets, and then the strings, and seamlessly links them together.  The coda is a true Piu Allegro, with strings really digging into their marcato figures, and though the timpani rolls at bars 434 (and related places) and the trombone bass line at 450 is swamped these are small quibbles.

The Brahms 4, on the other hand, does not reveal as much detail, but it’s an honest, lyrical interpretation that just precludes that last ounce of tragedy or depth.  Right from the start we can hear top-to-bottom clarity of texture, from the sweetly and simply phrased opening violin melody to the flowing arpeggiated accompaniment in the lower strings.  Here the sheer beauty of the dark, rich yet transparent Leipzig strings are made evident.  The tango-like second subject is as flowing and lively as any could wish for (no fussiness here, too), and in some transitive places in the development (such as those places where the melody stretches to a semibreve per note) Chailly’s players produce such a marvellously hushed and pristine tone that the effect reminds me of that transcendent stillness achieved in the finale of Maazel’s Mahler 4.  The coda, meanwhile, does not successfully serve as a cathartic culmination of the preceding tragedy, though this can be blamed on the Leipzig orchestra’s lack of textural weight as well as Chailly’s general lack of that kind of gravitas that Giulini and Klemperer, amongst others, evoke in their interpretations.  The second movement, though very beautifully played, is unremarkable, with a central climax that hardly leaves an impact, while the scherzo is at once bumptious and lively with a particularly glittering triangle.  The passacaglia finale, taken at a generally swift speed, starts imposingly and maintains that energy throughout, be it the strings at bar 33, or even that quiet interlude in the middle, ravishingly played by the solo flute and trombone chorale.  Here and in the first movement Chailly rarely slows down in places where a decrease in speed is not dictated in the score but most conductors slow down for emotional effect, which links the structure together more cohesively at the expense of deep feeling.  The Piu Allegro at the end, with strong trombones, is taken at an unusually swift tempo that generates considerable excitement, yet at the end one feels that this is all “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

I should also mention that as an appendix Chailly gives us the “revised opening” of the Fourth, which takes the plagal cadence from the coda of the first movement (the first half of the track gives us the very end of the coda to remind us of the source of the chord progression) and transforms it into a soft woodwind chorale where string pizzicati mark the changes in harmony.  To these ears Brahms was right to have gotten rid of it; these four bars detract from that inimitable immediacy of expression of the first theme.

However, the Brahms 3 is possibly the best performance of this difficult work I have heard in quite a while.  Let’s start with the opening:  two commanding wind chords effortlessly leading into a turbulent, dramatic, passionate string theme, like gates bursting open to reveal a symphonic universe.  Here Chailly’s tempi are very swift and the textures unusually clear, which is undoubtedly refreshing to those who are used to heavy and texturally clogged interpretations that get bogged down by their own self-importance.  Indeed, few other versions achieve such life and fire in the start of the development section and then immediately tone down to such a tranquil plateau with a particularly awesome (that is, full of awe) horn solo.  The second movement, taken at a very flowing tempo, is truly communicative and idyllic, and the third movement, in its songful and simple reading and containing the best horn/oboe solos I have heard, is just unbelievably poignant and uniquely touching.  The finale sets the seal on Chailly’s approach:  extremely dramatic, fiery and kinetic, never once stopping to sniff the melodic flowers on the way, sporting an outstandingly thrilling central climax and resolving in a sweetly fulfilling coda, it’s evident throughout the whole performance that Chailly understands the gist of Brahms’ vision and successfully imparts this vision into both his interpretation and his highly responsive and energetic players.

The symphonies only occupy two discs; the remaining disc is devoted to orchestral works.  Besides the typical Brahms cycle fillers (an exciting Tragic Overture that rarely evokes tragedy, a very fast Academic Festival Overture that rarely evokes excitement, and a Haydn Variations whose wonderfully dark woodwind playing steals the show) we have the three Hungarian Dances orchestrated by Brahms (1, 3 and 10), 9 Liebeslieder Waltzes orchestrated by Brahms, Intermezzos Op. 116 No. 4 and Op. 117 No. 1 orchestrated by Klengel, here receiving their world premiere recording, and the original first performance version of the andante of the Symphony No. 1, all delightfully done.  Meanwhile the recording is uniformly excellent, with plenty of warmth, presence and clarity. To most, though, the whole point of acquiring this set is for the symphonies, and given a disappointing Second, a fine Fourth, a very good First and a truly wonderful Third, I would direct anyone who wishes to experience Chailly’s Brahms to the single disc containing No. 1 and 3 only.  On that disc you will find this vaunted musical partnership operating at its very best–and when they do operate at their very best, the result is nothing less than music making of the highest level.


  • Album name:  Brahms:  The Symphonies
  • Performers:  Riccardo Chailly (conductor);  Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
  • Label:  Decca 478 7471
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  3:54:04

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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