Daniel Barenboim’s 1970s London LPs of Elgar conveyed a profound affinity with that composer confirmed by his recent recordings in Berlin – warm hearted accounts by a full-throated Germanic orchestra, a firm grip exposing a hidden Brahmsian logic to Elgar’s rambling symphonic structures. Returning to the Brahms symphonies a quarter century after his affectionate but flawed Chicago accounts, that particular Malvernian sensibility seems to have filtered through so that these latest performances, to invert the simile, are the most Elgarian I’ve heard.

Barenboim’s admiration for Fürtwangler has always been evident but reaches its full expression here. His supremacy in Wagner reveals dramatic subtexts within the symphonic logic and makes nonsense of the two composer’s incompatibility. The First Symphony’s introduction has that rare quality of suddenly opening a door on an argument in full swing and its slow burn generates skin-tingling anticipation. Note the magical way the violins steal in over pulsing timpani at the conclusion of the Andante as though emerging into the light of a forest glade or the vast Rhineland vistas launching the finale.

The Second Symphony may be a smidgen too autumnal but just go with the flow – the depth of tone at the recap of the first subject’s exhortations is breathtaking – then Barenboim risks total stasis before the second subject’s affectionate return. The finale could do with an extra jolt of adrenaline, the recessed trumpets a little too genial at the last flourish.

No 3 is near perfection; the subtle ebb and flow of the first movement, Elgarian nostalgia to the fore in the Andante with that gentle clarinet against misty-eyed strings, and the imperceptible fade of the closing pages.

Old Wilhelm would have approved of the daring slide into the first note of No 4 and the weightless metrical flexibility that follows. Expressive gestures are bold but integrate naturally and elucidate the symphonic argument. The Andante moderato generates a lump in the throat and the Scherzo has just the right swing. The finale strides forth with implacable conviction.

These are daringly old-school performances – the complete antithesis of the lean-and-mean period aware fashion of our time or by-the-score pragmatic literalism. Yet there is no sense of micro-managed fussiness or intervention – all seems inevitable and born of an imaginative awareness of romantic sensibility.

As for the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin – over 25 years Barenboim has honed it into the finest Wagnerian ensemble – its burnished string tone, old-gold brass and characterful winds evoke a golden age with precision of ensemble and tuning at the pinnacle of modern standards. Fine sound despite backward brass and heavy breathing from the podium. A special release from a living treasure.


Composer: Brahms
Composition: Symphonies Nos 1 to 4
Performer: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
Catalogue Number: Deutsche Grammophon 4835251 (4CD)