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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

The Symphonies

  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
  • (Original first performance version of Andante
    included on separate track)
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73
  • Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90
  • Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98
  • (Alternative opening of Symphony #4
    included on separate track)
  • Tragic Overture, Op. 81
  • Intermezzos, Op. 116 #1 & 4 (arr. by Paul Klengel)
  • Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a
  • Liebeslieder-Walzer, Op. 52 #1,2,4-6,8,9,11 & Op. 65 #9
  • Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
  • Hungarian Dances #1, 3 & 10
Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Decca 4785344 3CDs 78+79+77mins
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This may well come to be regarded as a milestone set of the Brahms symphonies. Moreover, it contains some rarely heard music, as well as excellent renditions of other Brahms orchestral music, all in vivid and powerful sound.

In the Brahms First Symphony Chailly turns out a powerful opening movement: after the grim introduction, he imparts rhythmic drive and weight to the Allegro portion, drawing out an anxiety and sense of relentlessness in what feels like a pursuit leading to inevitable tragedy. Overall, this is one of the finest renditions of this opening panel I've ever heard. The second movement is played with a lovely flow, but without shortchanging the darker elements in the music. The ensuing movement is serene and beautifully lyrical in the outer sections and big and muscular in the epic middle section. In the finale Chailly effectively catches the full range of emotion and expressive manner, from mystery and mighty struggle to consolation and freedom-yielding triumph. One of the very best Brahms Firsts you're likely to encounter.

The Brahms Second is nearly as convincing. The first movement is sunny and epic, but Chailly still manages to convey a sense of unease or even anxiety at times, largely with deft accenting and phrasing, as well as brisk tempos. Even the French horns have a bit of an edge in their playing of the opening theme and its reappearances, and the cellos and violas have a little less warmth in the big theme in F-sharp minor (later A major). The development section is stormy and powerful, and the remainder of the movement is well shaped and played. The second movement is lovely, but again Chailly points up disruptive and dark elements, especially just before the end. The ensuing Scherzo is appropriately subdued in the outer sections here, while exhibiting breathless tempos and delightful effervescence in the trio. The finale breaks out of the gate with a burst of energy and ecstatic joy, and the whole movement exudes triumph and bliss, especially in the all-conquering brass-dominated ending. In sum, this is very solid and convincing performance of the mighty Second.

Brahms' brightest and most congenial symphony, the Third, gets a little meat on its bones in this performance. While Chailly is sensitive to the symphony's more delicate and less angst-laden demeanor, he nevertheless gives an edge to the music so that there is a little less legato creaminess, a bit more drive and energy, and lots more muscle and weight. The briskly paced first movement sounds more rugged and defiant than is usually the case, but that is all to the good, as the sunny music brims with vigor and muscle in its epic character. The second movement also features a fairly brisk tempo, but still comes across as relaxed and bucolic. The third movement has always puzzled me: is it sad, regretful, a quiet struggle, or a lovely nocturnal utterance? Chailly captures all these possibilities in splendidly shaped playing. The finale bristles with energy, joy and triumph, and while quite convincing, some of the main lines in faster sections sound a little blurred or hastily played. Still, this is overall an excellent performance of the Third.

Now, we move to Brahms' most subtle and compositionally advanced symphony, the Fourth. In the other three symphonies Chailly is generally vigorous and potent, but in the first movement of the Fourth he is at times a bit less assertive, delivering an elegant and slightly restrained account, which is all to the good. The second movement is lovely but quite dark and anxious near the close. The ensuing panel is energetic and quite powerful – the most driven and muscular account I know of. The finale begins with a more unsettled than mysterious sense and becomes quite stormy before reaching the slower (but still conflicted) music of the middle section. The latter half turns vigorous and fierce here, as Chailly imparts more brawn and ruggedness to the sonic landscape, allowing the tragic character of the music to emerge with both power and defiance. This is an excellent version of the Fourth. A ninth track on this CD follows containing a little more than a half minute's music: just four bars comprise an alternative opening that Brahms composed for the symphony. Here it is preceded by the last several bars of the first movement, so that you hear the cadence that appears in the alternative opening. Interesting perhaps, but rather inconsequential.

Regarding the varied material on the third disc…. The two overtures get fine performances, as do the Haydn Variations. The Klengel arrangements feature orchestration that often sounds inappropriate to the spirit of the original piano works, but the performances are fine. The colorful waltzes and Hungarian Rhapsodies also get excellent performances. The original version of the First Symphony's second movement is of some importance here. It has a more chamber-like sound, is somewhat episodic in structure, and is 32 bars shorter but with some music not contained in the standard version. The performance is very good, but even if it weren't, who could complain? It is apparently the premiere recording of the original version and thus a must for Brahmsians.

This Decca set of the Brahms symphonies must be counted among the very best available, not least because the orchestra plays splendidly throughout all works for the masterly Ricardo Chailly. Of the Brahms cycles I own by the varied like of Walter, Ormandy, Doráti, Maazel, Mazur and perhaps a few others, and individual symphony discs by Wand, Alsop, Gardiner, Abbado, and a spate of others, I would rank Chailly among the finest Brahms conductors on record. A wonderful set – highly recommended!

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings