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As you listen to this richly Romantic symphony, you get a real sense that Brahms had very much hit his stride as a composer.
It had taken until he was well into his forties before he felt able to write a symphony. Yet, once Brahms started, there was evidently no stopping him. By the time he reached this, his third and penultimate symphony, in 1883, he had clearly found his own voice. Sweeping, lyrical string lines and beautifully autumnal woodwind passages make this a delight from start to finish.
While some other great composers had a reputation for being curmudgeonly, Brahms was of an altogether sunnier disposition. If you’re in any doubt, listen for the musical clue that runs through this symphony: the notes F–A flat–F occur repeatedly, and allude to the composer’s own saying, ‘frei aber froh’ – which translates as ‘free but happy’.
There’s a risk that this symphony could suffer from a sort of musical version of middle-child syndrome. The novelty of the Symphony No.1, coupled with the fire and joy of the No.4, can leave the No.3 being almost forgotten. The problem is compounded by the fact that it’s the shortest of the four symphonies Brahms composed. It’s also the most lyrical and, arguably, the most finely crafted, which goes some way towards explaining its enduring popularity today.
WDR Symphony Orchestra; Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Avie: 2051.
Illustration: Mark Millington