The Fourth Symphony was Brahms’s last, and although he had another 12 years to live, and plenty of music left in him, it’s seen as one of his great masterpieces, and indeed one of the great masterpieces of all symphonies.
He wrote it in 1885, when he was 52 years old, and he conducted the premiere himself. As the American writer Thomas May puts it: “The Fourth Symphony represents a summation, a harvesting of all the wisdom Brahms had cultivated throughout his career with regard to the ideal of the symphony as a musical thinker deeply conscious of the lineage leading up to him.”
And he continues, “What Brahms achieved in the Symphony in E minor is a musical edifice of unwaveringly masterly craftsmanship.”
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the last movement, in which Brahms returns to the old variation form called the Passacaglia – a set of 30 magnificent variations built on an 8-note bass line taken from one of Bach’s Cantatas.
Recorded by RNZ Concert
Auckland Town Hall, 5 July 2018
Producer: Tim Dodd
Engineers: Rangi Powick, Adrian Hollay