The NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester is formerly the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, originally conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt from 1945 and, later, by Günter Wand, Christoph Eschenbach and Christoph von Dohnányi. The new name dates from 2016 and stems from the ensemble’s residence – the spectacular new Elbphilharmonie. This is the first recording to be made there and even with evidence provided only by microphones it is clear that the acoustic has an individual character.
Although the disc’s packaging is labelled Brahms Symphonies 3 & 4 (presented in reverse order), the first music to be heard is two long-held chords that do not belong to either work. “Thomas Hengelbrock has opted for a world-first in this release” and includes four bars that Brahms composed to commence his Fourth Symphony but he didn’t include them in the published score – they have been recorded previously by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly as an appendix within their Decca Brahms cycle. Since the bars never appear again, Brahms’s decision seems logical. The music then continues in an imaginative performance. While moving firmly forward there is flexibility in the phrasing and only in the gorgeous central section of this first movement do things become over-contemplative. The powerful ending confirms an initial impression of the acoustic: it is most pleasant to the ear, yet forty to fifty seconds into the Symphony, wind chords overpower the strings and I could not be sure whether ensemble was awry or perhaps the recorded balance had confused the melodic lines. Either way, detail is covered by overall resonance.
In this Symphony, a good measure of a satisfying reading is that the first movement should be a little longer than the second one and certainly Hengelbrock achieves this convincingly. The Andante moderato does not linger and the solidity of its louder passages is a feature of confidence. Having been impressed many years ago in the Scherzo by the powerful triangle in Toscanini’s NBC version I was disappointed at the instrument’s modesty here while being pleased with the overall liveliness; timpani are notably clear and contribute splendidly. The Finale is mostly steady and the weighty, unhurried coda is very Brahmsian and the brass-playing is powerful, yet there is an indulgent slowing for the gentle section featuring flute where Brahms changes the time-signature yet gives no requirement to alter the tempo.
A similar liberty is taken early in the Third Symphony where at bar thirty-six Brahms changes from 6/4 to 9/4. Hengelbrock relaxes considerably, although to his credit the first speed has been restored when the exposition repeat is made. By now it had become clear that upper strings were not going to be particularly positive but there are some delightful woodwind contributions in the development section. The Andante is urged forward elegantly with notable inner detail, Hengelbrock imbuing the music with poetic expressivity without becoming sentimental. But there is an exception to his admirable objectivity: his very personal view of the Poco Allegretto, taken at an even slower tempo than the notoriously languid one adopted in the 1950s by Toscanini. Though beautifully played and notable for a lovely horn solo, this becomes a second slow movement. The Finale is sturdy, reminiscent of Klemperer but with less aggressive climaxes. In the final bars, where the motto theme descends gently, my concern about the recorded balance is epitomised: lovely harmonies but the melody in the violins is completely lost. Even so, this release contains sensitive and committed renditions.