Brahms: The Four Symphonies

Reviewed on Wed 17 Oct, 2018

Barenboim is at his best in the coda of the First Symphony’s finale, which growls imposingly, but the Andante sostenuto slow movement, though warmly played, feels more like an Adagio.

Certain aspects of this release strike me as fairly well targeted, so why is it that I come away from Daniel Barenboim’s Brahms with a sense of disappointment? The Third Symphony abounds in sensitively traced detail and surging lines, especially in the first two movements, whereas the Fourth Symphony is the real litmus test, its harmonic structure best appreciated when the music flexes its muscles. Here Barenboim and his players elongate the score’s opening note; the scherzo lacks weight, and, come the finale’s coda, rather than go for all-out passion, the playing is merely fast. Turn to James Levine and the Vienna Philharmonic (also on DG and much underrated), and the music is kept on a tight leash, the denouement delivered with pounding emphases, very much in the manner of Toscanini. Barenboim is at his best in the coda of the First Symphony’s finale, which growls imposingly (16:24), but the Andante sostenuto slow movement, though warmly played, feels more like an Adagio. The Second Symphony’s initial call to arms is low-key when compared with Levine, the slow movement less overtly expressive and the finale’s initial onslaught fuzzy. Furthermore, Barenboim doesn’t play the first movement’s important exposition repeat. Levine does. Both play the repeat for the Third, neither for the First. As to the newer deal, four CDs with no fill-ups is hardly good value. Levine offers all four symphonies, the Alto Rhapsody and the Tragic Overture on three – plus that extra repeat. Interesting, even compelling in parts, but viewed overall this is hardly one of the great modern Brahms cycles.
–Rob Cowan