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Harnoncourt Gives a New Sound to Brahms

By Eric Taver

LettrineARIS, 19 February 1998 - This new recording will shake up received opinion with respect to Brahms. Behind these fundamental pages of the symphonic repertoire, usually played as if they were musical monuments carved in stone, Nikolaus Harnoncourt wanted to find a more nimble Brahms, particularly a less intimidating one. Now 68 years old, the Austrian conductor started his career in the 1950s by returning to Bach his baroque colours; in the 1980s he reminded us that, beneath all the apparent gracefulness, Mozart's music was deeply tragic; he then wanted to resuscitate the feelings of violence and shock that Beethoven and Schubert were able to evoke in their contemporaries. In an imperturbable chronological order, Nikolaus Harnoncourt has thus enlarged his repertoire, and the breadth of his audacity, to the second half of the 19th century.

We discover a First Symphony that still seems to be looking forward from the sensitive romanticism of Schumann, the tutelary God of the young Brahms. Here the structure does not asphyxiate the spontaneity of the melodies. We lose the majestic aspect of the legendary interpretations of Klemperer or Furtwängler, certainly, but we gain this Brahms who renounces big orchestral explosians and becomes almost friendly. In the Second and Third Symphonies, Harnoncourt chisels the details, to the detriment, it is true, of large-scale architectural progression; he nonetheless makes us aware of the play of rhythms and sonorities too often hidden in the mass of sound.

The major success of this set is certainly the Fourth Symphony. While we often emphasize the pastoral character of the Second or the heroism of the Third, we usually consider Brahms's last symphony as a piece of music in its absolutely pure state. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, impressive for his knowledge of baroque music, draws out the dance rhythms, often of an earlier period as the passacaglia, with which the score is strewn, making it infinitely less austere. The tempi are supple, the melodies naturally songful, the progressions obvious. We no longer recognize Brahms.

In addition to all these surprises, there is the warmth and virtuosity of a Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra engaged in an adventure (but which seems to have forgotten the silky homogeneous sound so patiently constructed by Karajan): here is a set to which Brahms lovers will not be indifferent, and that might even charm all those who, repelled until now by the cold and calculating aspect of the composer, will discover against all expectations a music that is sensitive, charming and danceable, a profoundly human music.


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphonies n° 1 à 4.
Ouverture tragique; Ouverture académique; Variations Haydn.
Orchestre Philharmonique de Berlin
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, chef d'Orchestre
Teldec 3CD 0630-13136-2
66’, 70’ et 77’. DDD. Live 1996, 1997.

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