Chailly’s Brahms Redux: Luminous Via Blu-ray Audio

Riccardo Chailly's Brahms project, which includes the four symphonies, is now available in Blu-ray Audio. (© Gert Mothes, courtesy Decca)
Riccardo Chailly’s traversal of Brahms’ symphonies, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, is now in Blu-ray Audio.
(© Gert Mothes, courtesy Decca)

Brahms: The four symphonies, Haydn Variations, Tragic Overture, Academic Festival Overture and other works. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Decca Blu-ray Audio 0289 478 7696 0; also three-CD set 0289 478 7471 3.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

DIGITAL REVIEW — The last time I hunkered down with a complete symphony cycle from Riccardo Chailly, the subject was Beethoven — and the conductor’s determination to observe the composer’s ever-debated high-speed tempo indications. The experience was exhilarating. While no such controversy applies to Brahms’ symphonies, the results — delivered from a supersonic Blu-ray Audio disc — are again profoundly rewarding, remarkably fresh.

Brahms project Riccardo Chailly Blu-ray Audio formatWhat’s really new here is the transparent, detailed high-definition sound. The complete Gewandhaus-Chailly traversal of Brahms (including other major orchestral works like the Haydn Variations, the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture) was first released a year ago in a handsome, hardbound set of three CDs with very good sound and informative annotation. Yet the true import of the Blu-ray format is not merely the aural glory but rather the light it casts on Chailly’s distinctive approach to Brahms’ symphonies and indeed to the other significant works that round out this compendium.

Even as one who has been writing about audio technology almost from the dawn of stereo sound, I’m frankly dazzled by what is contained on this single Blu-ray disc: pretty much everything Brahms composed for orchestra alone. How could anyone be blasé about holding a substantial chunk of a great composer’s life’s work on one shiny little disc? And make no mistake, these many performances so easily encompassed transcend by far the slim form of the medium.

Brahms’ symphonies fall chronologically into two pairs — the long-deferred First (from 1876, when the 43-year-old composer finally dared confront the long shadow of Beethoven) followed by the Second the next year. Then came an interval of six years before Brahms offered up his Third Symphony in 1883, again followed closely by the Fourth in 1884.

Chailly finds more than curiosity in those pairings. Whereas he imputes to Symphony No. 1 in C minor and Symphony No. 2 in D all the grandiose bearing of Romanticism, with its lush textures and high contrast of heroics and singing lines, his take on Symphony No. 3 in F and Symphony No. 4 in E minor is patently classical: tautly structured, concise, expressive of design and counterpoint as much as human emotion. The connection to Haydn is manifest, but so is the foreshadowing of later Stravinsky.

Here, as in Chailly’s Beethoven cycle, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra displays not only virtuosity and agile ensemble but also a fetching blend of finesse and imposing power. And Chailly, the orchestra’s principal conductor, applies those qualities with unfailing purpose: Witness the restraint he observes in building the powerful finales of the First and Second symphonies. These are story-telling symphonies, like the Schubert Great C major, and Chailly honors the details and turning points of their narratives. Getting there is more than half the delight.

For my money, however, it is the Third Symphony — the most intricate and least demonstrative of the four — that particularly benefits from Chailly’s clear-sighted leadership. There’s no lack of energy, of forward drive or vibrant spirit in the performance, but the deeper pleasures are intellectual: the fine interplay of woodwinds, the pinpoint rhythmic inflections, the panoply of textural surprises that would have brought a smile to Haydn’s face, no doubt.

Perhaps it depends on one’s own temperament, which of Brahms’ symphonies might be declared the greatest. Were I condemned to live with just one, I’d probably take the Fourth and well might choose this recording. Chailly and company chisel — in the  most eloquent terms — a performance of Olympian strength and beauty. The slow movement is a thing of radiant intimacy and the finale, that passacaglia of monumental valediction, is positively thrilling in its structural precision and sonorous sweep.

Just when you think you know a work, it turns out that the Fourth Symphony’s famous opening bars were not the original opening but were preceded by a very brief musical figure Brahms ultimately decided to lop off. Chailly offers it here as an addendum, as he does with the original version of the First Symphony’s slow movement, which displays some modest differences from the episode that has come down to us.

Along with the familiar supplemental masterpieces already noted, Decca’s embracing package boasts a clutch of novelties, even rarities and, in fact, a world premiere recording: two piano Intermezzi — Op. 116, No. 4 and Op. 117, No. 1 — orchestrated by Brahms’ younger contemporary, Paul Klengel, who was the house arranger for Simrock, Brahms’ publisher. In addition, Chailly leads affecting performances of nine Liebeslieder-Walzer from Op. 52 and Op. 65, orchestrated by Brahms, as well as the only three of the composer’s several Hungarian Dances his publisher could ever induce him to orchestrate.

Lawrence B. Johnson, former music critic for The Detroit News, is editor of the performing arts web magazine