This is an exciting CD, even for a major non-fan of Gardiner's. It opens with a strikingly dramatic funeral march for chorus, winds, and timpani -- Begrabnigesang, Op. 13 -- that was the first effort of a brilliant 25-year-old to set chorus and orchestra together. I had never heard of it, much less listened to it, but Brahms has discovered the same stern, uplifting Protestant tone that would characterize the German Requiem. Gardiner's exemplary Monteverdi Choir is asked to sing in period style without vibrato, which is irritating, but it suits the work's quasi-archaic monody.
This is followed by a spectacularly vivid account of Mendelssohn's 'Mitten wir in Leben sind,' here expressed with theatrical excitement rather than chruchy reverence. It was written a capaella and gives the Monterverdi choristers a chance to display their perfect intonation and disciplined ensemble. Completing the generous choral portion of the CD is a more familiar Brahms piece, "Schicksalslied" (Song of Destiny) Op. 54, a mature work that rarely makes an impression on me. But here, even though indulging in every quirk of period style, Gardiner manages to inject more vitality than I would have expected -- the faux Baroque manner relieves the music of dated Victorian piety.
Which leaves the main work, the First Sym. The four symphonies have received barely any period-style readings on CD, although there have been some small-scale ones (notably from Charles Mackerras and Daniel Harding) that employ orchestras the size of those in the smaller capitals of Europe in Brahms's day. Here Gardiner loses me -- the blunt, thwacking timpani, skimpy, zingy string sound, and blaring brass set my teeth on edge. The pacing seems rushed and brusque. Gardiner's fans love his music-making for exactly these qualities, however. I can't fault the Revolutionaire et Romantique forces for their ability, so we are spared painfully out-of-tune strings.
Would Brahms recognize any of this as authentic? Plenty of conductors and musicians who played in Brahms's lifetime or who forge a link to the Romantic era went on to make early recordings, none of them remotely in the style esposued by Gardiner. Being full-blown Romantics, like the composer himself, they played in romantic style. Oh well, the choral works are so exciting that they are worth the price of admission on their own. Now the HIPsters can grumble.