If a composer revises a work after it reaches the public domain, is it always an improvement? This question, most often asked of Bruckner’s symphonies, was relevant for Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor, heard in its less familiar earlier (1841) version last night. The composer’s severe alterations to the instrumentation have reshaped the character of the work: by contrast with its more densely orchestrated later incarnation, the first version sounds much more light and airy. The experimental character of the symphony comes out more in the 1841 edition, too: the lack of an expositional repeat in the first movement makes the whole feel more fantasy-like. In fact, given that the symphony lasts barely 25 minutes with no pauses between movements, the whole thing felt a little like an extended operatic overture, especially given the manic finish.

Simon Rattle © Mat Hennek
Simon Rattle
© Mat Hennek

In the opening movement, Rattle prevented the introduction from sounding too slow by continuing to beat two in a bar (in some recordings, these triply subdivided beats can sound like six separate events). The Allegro di molto theme could have been crisper, but it still had a certain spring to it. I was a little unconvinced by the balance at the start of the Romanza (second movement) – I wanted more oboe to match the trio of cellos. The concertmaster, the most obvious of the changes in personnel from the first two programmes, gave us a sweet, unshowy solo in the contrasting major-mode section in the middle of this movement.

The scherzo theme in the third movement had the right amount of swagger, with the lingering trio forming an appealing contrast (especially on its second appearance, when it starts to fracture). The link passage to the finale, heavily indebted to the analogous portion of Beethoven’s Fifth, ignited into the Allegro vivace. The exuberance of the main material here was complemented by the coy fugato, where the players caught the lyrical impulse well.

Brahms’s Symphony no. 4 in E minor was a joy from start to finish. Not everything was perfect – the final chord in the second movement was pretty sour, and at a few points the woodwind lines sounded rather underprojected – but it could hardly have been bettered in terms of conveying a sense of the overall architecture of the piece. There was a sense of enormous commitment from the players: on the evidence of the three concerts I attended, they have a greater affinity with Brahms than Schumann.

The opening theme of the symphony was, if anything, rather understated, but it soon became clear that Rattle was holding his forces in check. Long before we got to the impassioned second theme (played with streamlined assurance on cellos and horn) the drama had started to unfold. The development section in the first movement saw the creation of a true misterioso atmosphere, alternating with forceful but never strident outbursts. The conductor never let the tension slacken, urging the transition passage forward in the recapitulation.

The motto announced at the beginning of the second movement was perhaps too horn-dominated (this principal player again continued to astound); of the woodwind instruments, only the flute really held its own. This underprojection was also characteristic of the main theme, where the clarinet melody was quite subdued. Admittedly, the music here is not particularly extrovert, and the way Rattle held the accompanying parts down left this viewer not daring to breathe lest it ruin the spell. Towards the end, when the violins are required to play very high on their G strings, the tone had a delicious depth and richness. The players clearly enjoyed themselves hugely in the rumbustious third movement, which was rendered with verve and precision. More even than usual, refraining from applause at the conclusion here felt like the triumph of an artificial code over the natural response (Alex Ross has made the same point about Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique).

The fourth movement, famously a set of variations on a repeating bass/harmonic pattern known as a Passacaglia, was given colouristic variety the like of which I’ve never heard before. Variation 11, in which a tentative flute line is heard above regular string pulses, took us into an idyllic backwater. The flautist here was allowed a generous degree of tempo rubato (expressive fluctuations in the speed), although when the clarinet took over for his variation, again it seemed a little underwhelming. The brass roused us from this moment outside time, and the final group of variations recaptured the urgency of the start. Although Schumann and Brahms are core repertoire for most orchestras, this cycle has re-established the Berlin Philharmonic’s claim to pre-eminence on this hotly contested ground.