Overall, Thielemann presents Brahms in moderate or sometimes even slow tempos, but manages generally to give the music an edge and some muscle. Dynamics are wide ranging, with fortes especially potent but not raucous or piercing. The playing by the orchestra is quite good, though not always perfect. At times Thielemann can be a little fussy, as in his use of rubato, particularly in the first movement of the 3rd Symphony, and in some of the ritardandos and sort of stop-and-start phrasing in the 2nd Symphony's third movement. But, as is always the case with Thielemann, even when he seems a little wayward – which is rare here – he is always very interesting, very compelling.
Thielemann's account of the 1st Symphony's opening movement is driven and vehement, but also weighty and powerful. The music is filled with tension and tragedy, but there's also that sense of austerity or coldness so typical of Brahms, a fellow whose music was not emotionally warm or gushing. In contrast, the ensuing Andante sostenuto is mostly gentle, though Thielemann doesn't downplay the moments of anguish and tension. The third movement's main theme is played serenely and peacefully, though Thielemann cranks up the tension to allow alternate materials to flare into some stormy moods. Thielemann captures all the conflict, mystery, consolation and final triumph in the finale as well as anyone. For some reason – perhaps because of his attention to meaningful detail – the music in the opening pages has echoes of Wagner, especially as the strings begin to stir and then surge amid the growing tension. At any rate, this is a fine performance all around.
In the 2nd Symphony one notices a couple of entrances by the strings in the first movement – the violins in particular – that sound a little tentative. But overall the playing is quite excellent, not only in the first movement but throughout all the symphonies. Thielemann's phrasing of the second movement opening is unusual, as the cellos – and later all the strings – play part of theme in a pronounced staccato fashion. I don't recall ever hearing the music played quite this way before, but I actually rather like this approach, as it brilliantly highlights the trenchant, even quirky side of Brahms. As suggested above the third movement can be slightly wayward in places but is overall quite effective. The finale is brilliant, with that sense of joy and triumph pervading the music with such energy and vitality. This is certainly one of the stronger renditions of this mighty Brahms symphony.
In the bonus track, Discovering Brahms (presented in German with English and other subtitles), Thielemann explains that the Brahms 3rd Symphony is regarded as difficult to bring off by many conductors. He believes the quiet ending is an implosion of sorts and that because the symphony demands subjectivity from the conductor one shouldn't employ stable tempos. He also speaks of the wild development section and much else that is unusual about the 3rd Symphony. Personally, I would have regarded this as the most genial and least difficult of the four Brahms symphonies, at least from a listener's point of view. At any rate, Thielemann's account of the symphony is very compelling and thoroughly convincing, featuring broad tempos, a fair amount of rubato and all manner of shadings in dynamics. The aforementioned first movement development goes well here, not seeming problematic in any way. The whole movement comes across well, in spite of (or, maybe, because of) Thielemann's tempo shifts and finicky dynamics. He makes this movement sound as big and epic and intense as I've ever heard it. The second movement is lovely in this performance and the puzzling Poco Allegretto that follows comes across with a mixture of delicacy, nobility and regret, Thielemann deftly conveying all its enigmatic and ambivalent qualities. The French horn solo near the end of the movement is very sensitively and exquisitely played. The finale begins very deliberately but then erupts into a storm only to yield to the bright and vivacious alternate theme. The music is definitely darker in Thielemann's hands throughout this movement – not least because of his rather retrained tempos and potent fortes. It all makes sense if you accept his view that the ending represents an implosion. It is an excellent, if somewhat controversial rendition.
If you were to make the case that Thielemann favors a fair amount of rubato and many adjustments in dynamics during performance, the 4th Symphony wouldn't be the work you'd choose first as Exhibit A. Not that he avoids such touches here, it's just that he's a little more straightforward in his interpretation in the 4th than in the other symphonies. But that is not to suggest he is tepid or uncommitted in his approach. The first movement is epic yet quite elegant until we reach the powerful stormy ending. The ensuing Andante moderato is beautifully played, despite phrasing in the second subject of the alternate theme that briefly pushes the main line too much to the rear. The third movement is brilliantly played and conceived, and in the finale Thielemann captures the mystery and ambivalence in the first half with nervous rushes from the strings and a lovely solo from the flute. The tempo in the latter half is fast and the mood tense, yet seeming to struggle toward joyousness, which is never quite reached. Again, this is a splendid performance.
This is the second Brahms symphony cycle that I have reviewed here this year. The other one was the three-disc set on Decca by Chailly (4785344), which included other Brahms works. That was an excellent set without doubt, and if you don't care to have a video set of the Brahms symphonies, that one will serve you nicely. I reviewed an older one by Dorati on Mercury back in 1999 (434380-2) that was also good, if a little too briskly paced. I would say that if you are looking for a video set of the Brahms symphonies it would be hard to imagine a better one than this thoughtful effort by Thielemann, especially considering the excellent sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity. Highly recommended!
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings