About this Recording
8.570233 - BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 / Hungarian Dances Nos. 2, 4-9 (orch. Breiner)
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor
Hungarian Dances Nos. 2, 4–9 (orch. Peter Breiner)


It was in the aftermath of the great success of the Third Symphony that Brahms wrote his Fourth, during the summers of 1884 and 1885 at the Styrian village of Mürzzuschlag. As with his other paired works, the sequel is in strong contrast to its predecessor. That Brahms aimed at such expressive difference is clear from later remarks, while exploring the idea of writing further symphonies (sketches survive for a Fifth): 'more than four symphonies are not really possible for the modern musician who would give each a characteristic content, after that one is forced to repeat oneself.'

Brahms announced the new work to friends with his customary mixture of irony, humour and self-deprecation. To Elisabeth von Herzogenberg he wrote: 'In general, and unfortunately, my pieces are nicer than I am, and people find less in them to correct?! But in this area the cherries do not ripen, do not become edible – if the item doesn't taste good to you, don't be embarrassed; I'm not at all keen to write a bad number 4.' He asked Hans von Bülow whether he could rehearse the work with the Meiningen Orchestra in the following terms: 'a pair of Entr'actes are to hand – such as together one commonly calls a symphony. […] I don't know whether a wider public will get to hear it. I fear it has the taste of the climate here – where the cherries never become sweet enough to eat!' To his friend Franz Wüllner he wrote: 'I am about to try over in Meiningen a kind of No. 4, for which no word-text is appropriate; there it can be done very thoroughly without a concert becoming the consequence!' and he told his friends the von Beckeraths: 'I am performing a new, sad Symphony here on Sunday, the day after tomorrow.' There is surely something rather touching in the diffidence and doubts the 52-year-old composer had over his latest masterpiece – doubts about whether it was good, whether it would please, whether it hung together adequately ('a pair of Entr'actes'), whether, while being 'sad', it was nevertheless too abstract ('for which no word-text is appropriate').

Early in January 1882 Brahms had discussed the last movement of J. S. Bach's Cantata No. 150, a choral and instrumental chaconne, with Hans von Bülow and Siegfried Ochs in the following terms: 'What would you think about a symphony written on this theme some time? But it is too clumsy, too straightforward. One would have to alter it chromatically in some way'. Thus, while the Third Symphony was still to come, Brahms had already made a key decision in respect of the Fourth. He was well-versed in the form of the chaconne: he knew examples by Muffat, Couperin, Buxtehude; he had written his own chaconnes in the finales to the Haydn Variations and to the Neue Liebesliederwalzer, also as the second subject in the finale of the First Symphony ; and he had arranged Bach's Chaconne from the D minor Partita for solo violin in 1877 for piano left-hand. For the Fourth Symphony Brahms transformed Bach's cantata theme in several respects, giving it a new rhythm, making it melodic, adding an A sharp (with a corresponding F natural in the new harmony). Following the lead of Bach's violin movement, he chose to use major-key variations in the centre and recapitulatory variations later, and to group variations in fours and pairs. The sequence of Brahms's 32 variations also however serves a post-Beethovenian purpose, since it enacts the broad processes of sonata form, with the haunting flute solo and following clarinet and trombone variations as a lyrical second-subject group, with fragmenting, modulatory variations as development, with recapitulatory variations followed by a canonic and modulating climactic coda.

While the finale was in fact the third movement to be finished, Brahms's conception of the symphony was oriented towards it from an early stage, and it surely gave him the impetus to base his first movement also on baroque techniques and precedents. This movement uses sequence more than any other extended work of Brahms: sequence forms the basis of all the themes, their treatments, and it conditions the structure of the development section. Having set out with this one baroque feature predominant, Brahms supplemented it with others: he introduced canon into the initial repeat of the opening theme, imitation by inversion into the development, and the very opening of the symphony uses, as the foundation of its sequence, a harmonic gambit often used by J. S. Bach to begin his preludes: chords I-IV-V-I. In the second movement Brahms carried this synthesis of the archaic and contemporary further, opening with a Phrygian mode horn call, and extending the modal influence into the harmony of his main theme. He was working on the complete edition of Schubert's music at this time, and the second movement of the Fourth has several Schubertian features: the introduction on horn, the overwhelming melodic beauty of the second subject, the explosive developmental outburst late in the movement, and the pizzicato accompaniment to the sustained first theme with its ostinato rhythmic profile. The third movement has that rare marking Allegro giocoso, denoting the comic episode in the tragic symphony, but its lightness and jollity are mixed with an expansive symphonism, including thematic transformations, inversions and other contrapuntal treatments. All four movements use sonata form, in the second and third movements with development nested in the recapitulation, and in the finale as overarching profile.

For Brahms a late-romantic symphony needed meaningful relationships between movements, and there was clearly a time when he worried about the way the movements of the Fourth Symphony belonged together, as we may deduce from his remarks to von Bülow. Schoenberg was not the first commentator to point out that Brahms's opening uses a chain of descending thirds. These thirds act as a motive underlying all the themes of the first movement, engender themes in the second and third movements, and the chain reappears towards the close of the finale in newly energised form.

In spite of Brahms's doubts and the negative response of his Viennese friends to an early try-over on two pianos, the symphony met with considerable acclaim at the first orchestral performance, given at Meiningen on 25 October 1885 with Brahms conducting, and on the subsequent European tour.

It was from his early contacts with the violinist Eduard Reményi that Brahms first learnt something of Hungarian gypsy music, and he never lost his love for it. He assembled his first two sets of Hungarian Dances for piano duet ( Nos. 1-10) in autumn 1868, noting to his publisher Fritz Simrock: 'They are incidently genuine children of the Puszta and Gypsies – not, therefore, created by me, rather just reared on bread and milk.' The dances were published in 1869, becoming immediately and enduringly popular. Brahms himself orchestrated Nos. 1, 3 and 10 ; the remaining dances from this collection are here orchestrated by Peter Breiner, in a Naxos commission specially for this recording. Breiner builds on Brahmsian precedent by giving a prominent rôle to the percussion and transposing two of the dances. But especially in his imaginative use of brass in Nos. 4, 6, and 8, his additional accompanimental figures in the da capo of No. 4, extra upbeat flourishes in Nos. 4 and 6, harmonic enrichment in No. 7, he sets the dances in an excitingly fresh light. Brahms, who was intolerant of tameness in arranging, would surely have approved.

Robert Pascall


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