Barenboim presents an idiosyncratic reading of these symphonies, one that is both sensitively conceived, as in the tightly knit Third Symphony, or moody and placid, like in the First Symphony. He conveys the swaying rhythms of the Third's first movement with admirable restraint, then subverts expectation in the heroic final movement, ending it with a curious, almost jarring, resignation. He begins the Fourth Symphony with less drama than customary, then startles listeners with an epic sweep Brahms would have cocked his ear at. The final movement lumbers into view like a dazed behemoth, waking up oh so gradually before shaking at the chains of constraint one last time.
Barenboim's subdued interpretations of the symphonies take some getting use to, but as soon as you do, you hear something unexpected in a companion piece, like a wild uninhibited Academic Festival Overture, or an energetic Tragic Overture in which everything falls into place.
These symphonies come both as a boxed set or individually. My advice is to buy one first and make sure it fits your concept of the old man and his music before springing for the whole set.
Copyright © 1996, Peter Bates