One imagines that this is the work Brahms always wanted to write, a work in which form and function are balanced, in which technique opens new paths to expression, allowing him to voice his deepest convictions about all the unnamables that shape destiny. Listen to the first sighs in the strings. The voice is at once resigned and searching and its broad phrases are transformed for a moment into a nervous figure in the winds before growing into a lament of deep yearning. Throughout this movement, the nervous and the keening will alternate, and they fuse in the odd episode that sounds as though Brahms had entered the world of the tango, where dance steps offer a staccato accompaniment to long languid lines. By the end of the movement, all this has changed. A chapter that began with music saturated in regret has taken on resolve. The broad probing phrases of the opening bars are compressed into projectiles of energy, gathering momentum until they erupt in a cataclysmic climax.
Brahms and a friend played through the symphony on the piano to a group of his closest confidants, critics and collaborators, but the reaction was one of those devastatingly uncomfortable silences. Instead, he suggested, he should keep the finale as a stand-alone piece, and replace both the slow movement and the scherzo. Riven by self-doubt, Brahms was unsure that he would allow the piece to have any life beyond its premiere in Meiningen that October. That less-than-straightforward gestation seems hard to believe nowadays, when Brahms's Fourth Symphony is trotted out on concert programmes as a sure-fire way to put bums on seats, with its comfortingly familiar melodies and melancholy, its promise of satisfying symphonic coherence, and its apparently easy appeal to musicians, conductors and audiences. You hear that above all in the final movement , the passacaglia, which ends with one of the bleakest minor-key cadences in symphonic music. This is a symphony that ought to leave you intellectually battered and emotionally bruised rather than superficially consoled. This music is some of the darkest and deepest in the 19 th century. With its negative ending, the Fourth Symphony denies this hope; it is the composed revocation of it. That melody — criminally over-familiar to many of our ears today!
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