Brahms Third Symphony is never an easy piece to programme. With its epic scale, complex scoring and brooding colours it most certainly fulfils the desire for meat in any concert, but its quiet ending makes it a difficult sell to end the night. The Wiener Philharmoniker, under the baton of seasoned conductor Daniele Gatti, chose to pair the symphony with more Brahms: the more bombastic First Symphony. The choice offered the audience a very meaty evening indeed. Although not perhaps the most easily digestible fare, it did not lack quality.

In his Third Symphony, Brahms offers the listener a rich, intensely textured experience built around the much-touted, modified “Frei aber froh” (F–A flat–F) motif which appears and reappears throughout the work. Variations and developments of this, as well as allusions to Schumann’s Third Symphony (Rhenish), build a great deal of the musical material for the work. It features four movements and exchanges the typical “scherzo” for an Allegretto, in this case a “poco allegretto”.  What strikes one when studying the score is how much effort Brahms put into the scoring. Not only is the original manuscript full of corrections and adjustments, but even a quick glance at a modern score reveals a plethora of piano-like gestures and figurations running constantly through the many secondary and tertiary voices. The difficulty is always in what to bring out: too little attention to what’s going on beneath the sweeping surface lines and it’s a mess, too much and momentum is lost. The other difficulty with Brahms’ works is how easy it is to get sentimental with them, and how quickly they lose their charm when one does. It is, by nature, the kind of music one would like to take a bath in with its warm, rich themes which wind and curl, its sultry dissonances, and its satisfyingly rustic sounds scored through the winds, horns and sweeping strings.

Much has been made of Brahms’ First Symphony and its relationship to Beethoven. Brahms was working under the stress and pressure of Beethoven’s seemingly insurmountable mastery of the genre and struggled for years, by his own accounts, on the symphony before deciding to test it publically. However, when Hans von Bülow dubbed the work as “Beethoven’s 10th”, Brahms reacted negatively. Truly, at several points during the performance I forgot I was listening to Brahms and thought I was hearing Mahler. There may be rhythmic references to Beethoven’s Fifth and a plethora of other stylistic homages, but the sounds and realization are very much Brahms’.

The Wiener Philharmoniker has the kind of sound this music was written for, and it is always a thrill to hear them play it. I would have loved more swing in the Third Symphony’s Allegro con brio, which sometimes lost line and the interest of its syncopation, and the third movement of the Third as well as the Andante sostanuto of the First both felt a bit on the slow side, but these are matters of personal taste. There were spectacular pianos, wonderful dynamic variety, and Gatti is a conductor who completely knows what he is doing. For the most part he gets out of the way and lets the orchestra do what it does best, and if he should allow himself a bit of sentimentality from time to time, than he has the brief to do so.  I also appreciate a conductor who does not make a show of himself; the music has his utter focus.

It’s always a treat to hear the Philharmoniker playing this repertoire, and programming questions aside, even if not especially memorable, it was Brahms, lots of wonderful Brahms. What’s not to like?