One could never describe a Brahms symphony as being underperformed, but the third symphony is perhaps the least performed of his fours ventures into the genre. Its explosive first movement and profound, lyrical third movement intermezzo are wonderful examples of Brahms’ inimitable orchestral style, but in many ways this symphony shows Brahms at his most conservative. With its weighty first movement and relatively light central movements and finale this symphony is, more than any other by Brahms, classically structured, opening with its most significant material in the model set out by Haydn.

© Monika Rittershaus
© Monika Rittershaus
Pairing the Brahms and Schumann symphonies seems at first totally uninspired, the two composers famously acquainted with one another and appearing regularly together on disc and in concert. However, as two symphonies in one programme doesn’t follow the standard “overture-concerto-symphony” concert model, pairing the symphonies seems to have remained relatively unchartered territory. None the less, there are many illuminating aspects to this pairing. One hears in Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony the lightness and intermezzo character which appears in Brahms’ middle movements and the sheer power of Brahms is mirrored at times in Schumann. But the differences are also brought into stark contrast. It’s easy to forget how late in the 19th century Brahms actually lived, and that his third symphony was written in 1883, 30 years later than Schumann’s third symphony. And while Brahms’ belief in traditional forms is always evident he was harmonically and orchestrally a thoroughly modern composer.

The Berliner Philharmoniker under their now legendary ex-principal conductor, Herbert von Karajan, once set the standards in this repertoire. The romantic repertoire was the bread and butter of the mid-20th century concert hall, and they were the artisanal bakers against whose benchmark all others were measured. Since Simon Rattle joined the orchestra more than a decade ago, there has been a shift in the orchestra’s focus, away from 19th century classics and into the 20th and 21st centuries. Schumann and Brahms are no longer “home turf” for this orchestra, and Rattle came (self-admittedly) late to this repertoire.

Rattle is a master of sound, and he draws a range of colours from this virtuoso orchestra which few can match. From the strident opening of Rhenish to the stoic chorale in the second movement of the Brahms there is an attention to detail in the sound itself which impresses instantly. The pianissimos are particularly noteworthy, providing truly transformative moments in the Scumann; in Rattle’s hands Schumann is definitively a romantic composer, and not the classically-minded extension of Beethoven, which many see him as.

© Kai Bienert
© Kai Bienert
However, this sound-centric performance came at the expense of rhythmic detail, lightness, and, at times, even ensemble. The opening of the Schumann lacked the rhythmic vitality of its hemiola and there were brief moments where strings and wind were simply not together. The second movement of the Schumann had beautifully drawn out phrases and flowed flawlessly, but again there was a lack of vitality when it moved from the lyrical opening to the rhythmic second section, with soft semiquavers lacking in profile. The fourth movement fared somewhat better with vibrant pizzicatos in the opening, but the finale was once again slightly unsettled by ensemble issues, particularly in the più mosso closing moments.

Brahms’ expansive writing fares better under this approach and there were some truly transformative moments. The horn and oboe duet in the first movement and the wind chorale of the second were breathtaking, while the recurrences of the beautiful main theme of the third provided new insights with every repetition, and was newly heart wrenching every time. The finale was truly a journey in Rattle’s hands, from the spooky uncertainty of the opening to the heavenly closing chords.

There was much to commend in these performances, and Rattle provided new insights into both Schumann and Brahms, but whether it lies in the mammoth undertaking of preparing 8 symphonies simultaneously for concerts or in the orchestra’s newfound unfamiliarity with the repertoire, there were some basic deficiencies in the performance, issues which one does not expect from what is widely considered to be the best orchestra in the world.