For a composer who made his reputation on music of extraordinary complexity and busyness, the Four Last Songs clearly represent a mellowing, simplification and directness by Strauss – music of autumnal warmth that echoes the poems; words and music alike draw the listener in. The orchestra is luminous throughout, and the soprano soars and vocalises in the ecstasy of unconstrained lyricism. Three of the texts deal with evening, nightfall, or autumn – all images connected with Strauss’ constant thoughts of mortality. The Fourth Symphony is at once a summation of Brahms’ learning and technique, and a work of art that for all its complexities cuts as close to the heart of the heart as music can.
His craftsmanship is evident in its thematic economy, elegant harmonic designs and command over musical structure. Of all Brahms’ works, it displays his essence most completely – a cosmos of textures, tempos and moods, culminating in music of unsurpassed grandeur. On a much smaller scale, composed as a “symphonic birthday gift” to his wife Cosima and their new-born son Siegfried, the Siegfried Idyll shows a rarely seen side of Wagner. It is a gentle song of contentment and gratitude – a most personal and intimate expression of his feelings while still calling to mind his heroic alter-ego.