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Brahms' 4th Symphony At Full Strength

In the final movement of his Fourth Symphony, Johannes Brahms releases a pent-up tide of emotion.
Hulton Archive
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In the final movement of his Fourth Symphony, Johannes Brahms releases a pent-up tide of emotion.

The character of the Fourth Symphony has been described as autumnal. Even if it weren't the last of Brahms' symphonies, the description would fit, for surely none of the others presents the same pathos, austerity and unblinking seriousness encountered here.

The first movement is particularly somber, and full of what Yeats, in an entirely different vein, would later call "passionate intensity." Brahms sustains this mood through the second movement, as well, with its opening in the tonally ambivalent Phrygian mode and subsequent wanderings in harmonic regions both lighter and darker. The agitation of the first two movements yields to an earthy ruggedness in the scherzo, which possesses an exuberant energy unique in all of Brahms' output.

Equally compelling is the towering drama of the finale: a masterwork of scoring, architecture and argument, as well as the most profound symphonic utterance Brahms produced. Incorporating elements of a full-blown sonata scheme within a single, all-encompassing arch, it stands as a fitting conclusion to Brahms' greatest achievement as a symphonist.

Kleiber's Electric Touch

Carlos Kleiber was always his own man. He was the son of Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber, so he came to conducting naturally — but he never needed to do it. He restricted his conducting appearances to select occasions, keeping well out of the public eye. When he felt moved to conduct, though, it was almost always a major occasion, and orchestras jumped through hoops for him. Kleiber died in 2004 at age 74.

The Vienna Philharmonic is on its best behavior in this 1980 recording, and it gives everything it has to the performance. There is no holding back; it produces a singing style with that glowing, incandescent tone that only it can produce for the right conductor.

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Ted Libbey