Brahms: Symphony no.4 in e minor op.98

Duration : 43 minutes

Emmanuel Krivine conducts the Orchestre national de France performing the Symphony no.4 in e minor op.98 by Brahms. Concert recorded live on 13 September 2018, at the Radio France Auditorium, Paris.

Brahms's final symphony is considered by many to be an answer to the Seventh by Bruckner, whose premiere in 1884 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig earned the Austrian composer widespread attention and praise. The score by Brahms remains faithful to his three previous canonic symphonies, not surpassing their length or means: a way for the composer to distance himself from an excess demonstrated, according to Brahms, by Bruckner, a devout admirer of the music of Wagner (deceased in 1883). 

The symphony in e minor was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the public of Meiningen following its premiere. However, the same cannot be said of its first performance in Vienne, where a great number of Brahmins (as were called fans of the composer), the young Hugo Wolf and also, surprisingly, the critic Eduard Hanslick, normally a great defender of Brahms, all expressed doubts regarding the work. It was not until Brahms's last living moments that the Austrian capital finally accepted the now elderly composer's creation. 

The pianist Florence May, a student of Brahms and his first English biographer, emotionally recounts how the Viennese welcomed with great passion the Symphony no.4 after a concert on 7 March 1897, conducted by the faithful Hans Richter (who had also conducted the Second and Third symphonies), only a month before Brahms's death:

"A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists’ box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience. The demonstration was renewed after the second and third movements, 31 and an extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting house, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there, shrunken in form, with lined countenance, strained expression, white hair hanging lank: and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that they were saying farewell."

This Fourth Symphony is in many ways an "Autumn symphony", as described by Claude Rostand. It alternates between the pain of an excess of health that can no longer be expressed, and a resignation in the simple joys of nature. It is also the most colourful of Brahms's symphonies, demonstrated solely by the woodwinds. It opens with a theme of great beauty, carried by a nostalgic and passionate swell.

The first movement unfolds with a stormy tension, the music almost advancing painfully, with rage, reaching a coda whose pathos seems out of place in the normally introverted music by Brahms. The slow movement is shared between recollection and effusion, before sliding into an atmosphere of legend created by the liveliness and colour of the woodwinds. A moment of varied emotions that never quite reaches the eloquent peaks of the initial movement, however, remaining an episode of respite whilst waiting for more decisive moments. The Allegro that follows is in reality giocoso, with its rustic flow, the sonorities from the triangle, and an atmosphere that brings to mind the "Spring" Symphony by Schumann

It is not until the finale, however, built in the form of a passacaille (much like the finale of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, as Brahms often enjoyed reminding), also using the theme of a Bach cantata (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150) that we find Brahms back in his usual form. The orchestra recounts, confides, elaborates, all with a vehemence that leaves little respite. Despite its energy, however, the work hardly lingers and ends with a brief and abrupt coda.

Bertrand Chamayou
Full concert
Brahms, Lalo and Saint-Saëns by Bertrand Chamayou and the Orchestre national de France
Auditorium de Radio France
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
All artists
  • Emmanuel Krivine
    Emmanuel KrivineConductor
  • Orchestre National de FranceOrchestra