Brahms: Symphony No.4, Hungarian Dances. Budapest Festival Orchestra and conductor Ivan Fischer. (Courtesy of Channel Classics)
Brahms
Budapest Festival Orchesta

Channel Classics

For a week after this recording of the Brahms Fourth arrived, I had to limit myself to listening to one movement per day. It’s my favorite Brahms symphony, a companion, you might say, since early adolescence. Creature of habit, I usually alternate between favorite recordings by Weingartner, Furtwängler or Szell. If these three very different conductors, with their respective British, German and American orchestras, have anything in common it might be their representation of an august, autumnal Brahms, the grand old man of Viennese music, having his final, melancholy say.

Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra aren’t having any of it. In place of autumnal melancholy there is full-blown, unmitigated tragedy that cuts to the bone. This reading’s incontestable immediacy is what made me take little sips, rather than downing the whole at a sitting. Encountering a long-familiar artwork revealed in such bold originality and nakedness can be unsettling.

This is a performance that exudes conviction on every level, from the tiniest elements to the symphony’s overarching profile. Phrases, filled with character, are imbued with unique poise and balance. Tunes and textures, when repeated, are cast in subtly different light, suggesting evolving life experience. Prevailing flexible tempos never obtrude but lend the score breadth and humanity.

The Budapest wind band’s plangent edginess is the perfect contrast for the lean, lithe sound of the string choirs. Thirty measures into the andante, after the winds have told their solemn tale, the strings take the lead, singing of compassionate consolation with a sweetness irresistible to all but the truly tough. No wallowing in beautiful sound here. This is about expressive contours, emotional authenticity and directness.

The concluding chaconne creates a terrifying atmosphere, unlike any recording I know. Midway, in an exquisitely played interlude, the solo flute seems to wander aimlessly in despair. When the full ensemble reconvenes, there can be no doubt of the outcome. The end approaches with the inexorable finality of Greek drama.

As in other releases of their Brahms series, Fischer and the Hungarians offer a few deliciously spicy side dishes, consisting of Brahms Hungarian Dances, just to show how they’re done.

Now I’m nostalgic all over again for those two seasons of grace between the tenures of Slatkin and Eschenbach, when Fischer dwelt among us as interim conductor of the National Symphony.

Patrick Rucker

Divine Redeemer
Christine Brewer, Paul Jacobs

Naxos

A new album of Christian devotional pieces by a major opera singer, while part of a long tradition, might turn off some listeners. On her new disc, “Divine Redeemer,” the celebrated soprano Christine Brewer, together with the equally celebrated organist Paul Jacobs, moves beyond cliche with a varied selection of music that she approaches with a sincerity that reflects her start singing in church in her Illinois home town.

There are only a couple of pieces that might set off chestnut alarms. César Franck’s “Panis angelicus” is offered, thankfully, in a version closer to its original form, in the “Messe à 3 voix,” than the schmaltzy arrangements with oohing chorus often heard now. Jacobs plays the organ arrangement in a way that recalls Franck’s original scoring for cello, harp, and organ, with the cello melody on a solo stop and the closing arpeggios rendered in a harp-like way. And the title song, from the English translation of Gounod’s “Repentir,” is sung here with intensity and not too much oozing rubato.

"Divine Redeemer" by Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs. (Courtesy of Naxos)

The other vocal selections are more obscure, including Lili Boulanger’s “Pie Jesu,” dictated on the young composer’s deathbed, and Puccini’s “Salve regina,” which is set to a new Italian text rather than the traditional Latin one. Max Reger’s organ arrangements of three Christian-themed songs by Hugo Wolf round out this mostly Romantic program. Bach’s “Bist du bei mir” is often performed in sacred contexts, although it is actually an adaptation of an aria by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749), from his opera “Diomedes,” copied by Anna Magdalena Bach into her “notebook” of keyboard pieces.

The sense of honesty to the music’s ecclesiastical origins comes across in the way this disc was recorded, in the Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee, a massive edifice begun in 1893 modeled on the cathedral in Chartres. Its large stone nave, more than 130 feet long, creates an echoing ring of several seconds, which the engineer and editor have allowed to stand: Brewer’s expansive voice fills the space and is captured in a way that incorporates a sense of distance and openness. Jacobs puts the Gesu’s large organ through its paces, with an especially virtuosic turn on Bach’s C major prelude and fugue (BWV 547) and colorful registrations for Nadia Boulanger’s “Trois Pièces pour Orgue” and Reger’s “Toccata and Fugue,” op. 59.

Charles T. Downey