The version of Brahms's Fourth Symphony that I play all the time on my iPod was recorded by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. I bought the CD after hearing them play all four Brahms symphonies a couple of years ago at Carnegie Hall--their magnificent performance blew all the competition out of the water and made my old recording sound flat. This is the version that is in my ear, and in my memory, and I am very happy with it.
But last night I got a sense that there could be two superlative versions of the Brahms 4, in some ways very different from each other. On Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, Valery Gergiev led the adventurous London Symphony Orchestra in a performance that changed my feeling about the piece. (The first half of the program, by the way, was equally exemplary: Denis Matsuev in the First Piano Concerto. But about that I have nothing to say except "Wow!") Though the players are all excellent, the LSO feels like a slightly more anarchic, wild, untrammeled orchestra than the Berlin Philharmonic: strict cohesion has been replaced by something else that seems to work equally well. And Gergiev is a darker, moodier conductor than Rattle. The result is a scarier Brahms.
When you listen to Rattle and the Philharmonic play the Fourth, it is as if you are on a galloping horse, surrounded by a hundred other galloping horses all running on the same beat. It is thrilling and deeply pleasurable, and fun in the highest possible way. When you listen to Gergiev and the LSO, you are instead at the center of a whirlwind--a well-coordinated, finely tuned whirlwind, but a whirlwind that could nonetheless choose to sweep you up and smash you against a wall as easily as it could leave you in place. The Gergiev Fourth is thrilling, too, but it is a more unnerving kind of thrill. He is the only conductor I've encountered who can repeatedly, and consistently, make music feel dangerous.