Brahms: Symphony No 1

Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (Soli Deo Gloria SDG 702)

19 September 2008 4 stars

La straniera with Patrizia Ciofi: Opera RaraEver since Sir John Eliot Gardiner set up his Soli Deo Gloria record label to release his complete account of the Bach Cantatas (the 'Bach Pilgrimage' of the year 2000) after being dropped by Deutsche Grammophon, there was always going to be a question about whether the label could sustain interest and produce anything beyond the Bach series.

This new venture answers it with a positive 'yes'. Perhaps it helps that SDG has again embarked on a multi-unit project, albeit not on the scale of the Bach Pilgrimage, and that again Gardiner has opted for one of the 'three Bs' of German music. Last year, he launched a concert series with his 'other' ensemble, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, plus the Monteverdi Choir once more, to explore Brahms' four symphonies.

But as is typical of Gardiner, he's not content to see the works in an artistic vacuum and has instead set them in a thought-provoking context. Brahms and His Antecedents spreads the symphonies over four programmes, two last year and two this coming autumn, and combines the symphonies with vocal music by both Brahms and the composers that inspired him. So, for instance, Bach is included in some of the programmes to acknowledge Brahms' concerns with classicism and in particular, the fact that he was both 'oppressed by and in love with the past, but not defeated by it' (a quotation from Hugh Wood, whose interview with Gardiner appears in the CD's hardback 'book' presentation cover).

What's particularly moving about Gardiner's approach to the music is the way in which he portrays Brahms as actively using the possibilities of learned music to create something utterly new, rather than being tortured in a straightjacket by the shadows of past masters. Examples cited are the double-choir motet of Mendelssohn, Mitten wir in Leben, with which Gardiner sees parallels in Brahms' use of separate 'choirs' of winds and strings in invertible counterpoint in the first movement of Symphony No 1, and in a more general sense, the notion that Brahms follows Bach in seeing counterpoint as an emotional process – 'the child of passion, not calculation'.

The first item on the CD is Brahms' Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13, which was written in 1858 during the composition of the German Requiem and is seen by Gardiner as a prototype for the better-known large-scale work. In both the performance and his liner interview, the conductor points towards the work's inbuilt tension, namely the fact that Brahms combined the first line of the melody of one of Luther's most popular hymns ('Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort') with the words of a different hymn by Michael Weisse. This causes a change in the stresses of the musical beats and the metre of the text, and promotes a view of Brahms as a subversive. The Monteverdi Choir communicates this well in the first stanza, but it's the second and third, with their growing textures and throbbing timpani beats (a fore-runner to the opening of the First Symphony), that make the impact.

Completed a few years before Brahms' birth, Mendelssohn's Mitten wir in Leben from Drei Kirchenmusiken, Op. 23, provides ideal material for the Monteverdi Choir, singing a cappella. The control and dynamic range are excellent, providing vigour in the fourth stanza and an exquisite, hushed delivery of the final 'Kyrie eleison'.

Of the choral works, it's Brahms' magnificently-sung Schicksalslied, Op. 54, that makes the greatest impact. Somehow, the sense of apotheosis felt even in the opening orchestral statement makes the music seem more personal. Perhaps more significantly, it also contains many of the same colours as the First Symphony, and the association of certain orchestral gestures with elements of the text – high woodwind with the 'blessed genies' wandering 'above in the light on soft ground', gently ascending strings on the image of 'the fingers of the player' brushing lightly 'on her holy strings' – also posits a semiotic connection with the supposedly 'absolute' symphony.

Which leads to Op. 68 itself, the longest work on the disc. For me, the first movement generates an awe-inspiring tension that is occasionally lost in the middle movements and is only regained in the finale. The ORR responds magnificently to Gardiner's visceral approach, with the natural horns adding a fruitiness not always found in performances of the work. The strings are especially alert in the opening movement, and the disparate timbres of the period woodwind instruments helps draw attention to their lines. Expressive though the second movement is, however, it loses momentum in places, and for me some of the dynamics aren't carried out as indicated in the score (is there really a noticeable change from pianissimo to forte from the fourth to the sixth bar?). There are also some routinised moments in the third movement, though these are offset by the sensitivity of the string playing throughout. The gloriously biting finale brings everything back into focus, not least during the nimbly-negotiated variations section, which matches the finest accounts on record.

While studio accounts of the symphony are numerous, this new addition to the discography is surely a serious competitor thanks to the pedagogical aspect provided by the choral items. Future instalments in the series are greatly anticipated, if this one is anything to go by.

By Dominic McHugh