For a week after this recording of the Brahms Fourth arrived, I had to limit myself to listening to one movement per day. It’s my favorite Brahms symphony, a companion, you might say, since early adolescence. Creature of habit, I usually alternate between favorite recordings by Weingartner, Furtwängler or Szell. If these three very different conductors, with their respective British, German and American orchestras, have anything in common it might be their representation of an august, autumnal Brahms, the grand old man of Viennese music, having his final, melancholy say. (Washington Post/Patrick Rucker)
Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra aren’t having any of it. In place of autumnal melancholy there is full-blown, unmitigated tragedy that cuts to the bone. This reading’s incontestable immediacy is what made me take little sips, rather than downing the whole at a sitting. Encountering a long-familiar artwork revealed in such bold originality and nakedness can be unsettling.
This is a performance that exudes conviction on every level, from the tiniest elements to the symphony’s overarching profile. Phrases, filled with character, are imbued with unique poise and balance. Tunes and textures, when repeated, are cast in subtly different light, suggesting evolving life experience. Prevailing flexible tempos never obtrude but lend the score breadth and humanity.
The Budapest wind band’s plangent edginess is the perfect contrast for the lean, lithe sound of the string choirs. Thirty measures into the andante, after the winds have told their solemn tale, the strings take the lead, singing of compassionate consolation with a sweetness irresistible to all but the truly tough. No wallowing in beautiful sound here. This is about expressive contours, emotional authenticity and directness.
The concluding chaconne creates a terrifying atmosphere, unlike any recording I know. Midway, in an exquisitely played interlude, the solo flute seems to wander aimlessly in despair. When the full ensemble reconvenes, there can be no doubt of the outcome. The end approaches with the inexorable finality of Greek drama.
As in other releases of their Brahms series, Fischer and the Hungarians offer a few deliciously spicy side dishes, consisting of Brahms Hungarian Dances, just to show how they’re done.
Now I’m nostalgic all over again for those two seasons of grace between the tenures of Slatkin and Eschenbach, when Fischer dwelt among us as interim conductor of the National Symphony.