Can one ever get enough Brahms? Not me. Especially, his four magnificent symphonies. In my life, there’s always room for another set. Here we have half a set — I assume Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 are in the can and on their way soon. In addition to the first two symphonies, we get the bonus of the Tragic Overture and Variations on a Theme of Haydn, both of which receive wonderful performances.
I associate the Brahms Symphonies with conductors Walter, Klemperer, Furtwängler, even von Karajan. I would not have thought mercurial (and inconsistent) Valery Gergiev a top match for the composer, especially his autumnal qualities. I was wrong!
These performances are as good as any. Gergiev digs deep into the architecture of the works allowing counterpoint, usually shrouded in ‘thick’ playing, messy acoustics or poor recordings, to the fore. It makes for interesting and instructive listening.
But, make no mistake, these are not musical dissertations on contrapuntal writing. What Gergiev and his magnificent London Symphony Orchestra give us are superbly played, exciting performances. Now and again — 2nd subject flute solo of No. 2, mvt 1 and the final bars of No. 1 — Gergiev allows a little hesitation in the service of interpretation. He’s not trying to be different, just musical. It may work for some, others not so much. Me? S’okay. But, the big picture is magnificent.
The last set I reviewed came from Berlin with Rattle on EMI. It’s a great set with consistently brilliant playing and a lovely recording sourced from the Philharmonie. The LSO Live recording is from the orchestra’s dry, uninviting home of the Barbican. That the orchestra sounds so rich and detailed is a testament to the amazing adaptability of the players and the fine engineering.
The real heroes of this new release are the solo players. As an ensemble, the LSO is cracker jack and its 2013 iteration matches Rattle’s Berliner Philharmoniker for style and execution, but the LSO soloists throughout have more character. The only real disappointment of the Berlin set, Stefan Dohr’s Ist Symphony, last movement horn solo (too reticent) is spectacular here as played by Tim Jones. Flutist Gareth Davies and solo clarinet, Chris Richards, are also brilliant — equal or better than the solo artists conducted by Walter with his Columbia Symphony and in Klemperer’s vintage Philharmonia. And, for those, like me, who have a little more than skepticism of ‘mainstream’ Gergiev after his ill advised Mahler cycle or his unique rehearsal ‘schedule’, have no fear. These performances are beautifully prepared. Buy with confidence. It’s straight ahead, brilliant Brahms.
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October 8, 2013 release.