“Writing a symphony is no laughing matter.”
”Brahms seems too willing to sacrifice sensuous beauty to the cultivation of greatness and seriousness, severity and complexity.”
—Eduard Hanslick, music critic writing after the world première of Brahms’ First Symphony
Brahms was 43 and Alexander Rahbari 41 when they—nearly a century apart—accepted the responsibility of, respectively, completing a nearly 15-year gestation and giving a deservedly revered composition another life.
For the composer it was a long struggle, filled with numerous re-writes, advice from colleagues and the hidden fear of being unworthy of Schumann’s daunting advance notice. The invisible master peered over Brahms’ shoulder, raising his level of “acceptable,” yet, finally, resulting in a masterwork truly worthy of the designation. For the conductor, the impatience Brahms must have felt carrying around such an incredibly important contribution to music for all those years permeates this account.
The disc also features the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, which pre-dates the symphony and was most certainly another step along Brahms’ learning curve towards mastering the complexities of orchestration. Positioning Op. 56a after the symphony does neither work any favours. The five bar theme intrigued the studied creator who followed his own advice by “grounding” the work in the bass line of the Passacaglia where the entirely unexpected appearance of the triangle, even as the music draws into itself—like telling a secret—never fails to astonish.
Sadly, Rahbari and his overly reverberant band seem content to work their way through these jewels rather than plumbing their depths.
The Symphony fares best. The booming introduction (espressivo e legato) is too loud by half, making the appearance of the later fortissimos non events. Once in the “Allegro,” the drive is present but direction is lacking—no tears shed for ignoring the exposition repeat. And Rahbari falls into the trap of slowing the pulse when Brahms already beat him to it by lengthening the notes then relaxing their rhythm so that the “Meno Allegro” just starts, rather than emerges.
The “Andante sostenuto” begins well and the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal oboe—as is the case throughout—acquits himself with distinction and greater focus of tone than the concertmaster. Later, ensemble problems surface, confirming that the few lapses in the first movement (notably the alignment of the low strings with the contra bassoon) were not anomalies.
The “Allegretto” is, in many ways, the finest outing of the recording, with beautiful phrasing from the solo clarinet and an unhurried ease in and out of the duple/triple alternations, but, just ahead of the foreshadowing pizzicati, there’s a last-minute race that mars the drama before it unfolds.
The magnificent “Finale” is notable for its balance: strings/winds; legato/staccato and compelling warmth in the chorale. Next time Rahbari may realize that there is more to the famous tune than, well, the melody and invite the violas to press their bows more firmly into the rich harmony that draws our hearts as well as our minds into the frame. When the coda arrives it truly snaps, crackles and pops, but only to have the emergency brake needlessly applied against Brahms’ already well-calculated pedal.
Similarly, throughout the Variations, the result could only improve if the podium let the music play rather than force its content out of the bars. A stodgy opening, much unwanted affectation and the preponderance of vertical rather than horizontal thinking combine to give this reading more the feel of a work-in-progress rather than a distinctive statement.
Nonetheless, for the captivating feeling of an “artist in a hurry” that permeates these performances, the disc is worth adding to a serious collection. No doubt Brahms, too, had days like that. And what a fascinating comparison it will be to make when Rahbari’s next chance comes along to share his further experience and learning from the privilege of working with some of the finest music ever penned. JWR