A particular strength of Edward Gardner’s readings is clarity of the sound. Brahms writes carefully harmonised wind sequences and Gardner makes them clear. Timpani strike through forcefully when required, and the weighty lower brass is admirably defined. These factors make the slow introductions to the outer movements of the First Symphony especially dramatic, but elsewhere the more forceful moments are not strongly stressed – the emphasis is on the classical rather than the romantic nature of the music.
Brahms rarely indicated changes of tempo in his symphonies. For example in No.1 once the Allegro has commenced there is no change until the Meno allegro marking at the start of the quiet coda 457 bars later, yet often the second subject is slowed enormously on each appearance and the Meno Allegro instruction is anticipated long before it is required. Similarly in the Finale the entry of the grand theme marked allegro non troppo ma con brio is usually pushed on more swiftly as soon as full orchestra restates it. Brahms’s only further tempo indication is the Più allegro at the start of the Coda, yet many performers choose to slow down again after a mere eighteen bars. These are the most noticeable well-worn traditions in Symphony No.1, and in No.3 there is another near the start where the second subject can suffer from a sleepy approach.
Gardner’s performances have a strong sense of structure (and he makes every repeat) but he still acknowledges those old-fashioned adjustments. His changes of impulse are quite mild but they still disrupt the musical flow.
Symphony No.3 glows; the gorgeous themes please the ear. Textures soften occasionally since timpani seem to have a warmer quality than in No.1 and the trumpets do not challenge. The beauty of the shadowy Andante is treated sensitively and a sense of mystery is conveyed. I was reminded of Bruno Walter’s deeply-felt interpretation of long ago. The sweep through the finale is convincing – not the power at climaxes provided by such conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler or Otto Klemperer, instead Gardner uses a sense of urgency to grip the attention. At the end of the first movement, descending strings give a quiet reference to the bold opening theme of the Symphony, and this occurs again at the end of the work but here the wind chords overwhelm the strings, and the subtle allusion is lost.
This is refreshingly clear-cut Brahms; the Bergen Orchestra plays with elegant tone and admirable precision. Lean textures within a warm acoustic suit Brahms, and Gardner expounds the music firmly yet his acceptance of those traditional interferences with tempo still disturbs.