Time was when you wanted solid British Brahms, you looked back to the early ‘60s for Karajan or Klemperer/Philharmonia, or for the pure British experience, Boult/London Philharmonic. In my recent experience, the London orchestras have been more successful with live Brahms rather than canned (the Brahms/Jarvi/Chandos recorded cycle a case in point). A live performance I attended at London’s Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia playing Brahms 2 with Maazel a few years back was superb. And a Royal Philharmonic/Ashkenazy 4 on tour was mesmerizing.
That said, we have two new cycles of symphonies on the way conducted by London’s favourite Russians, Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Jurowski. I was surprised at the quality of the Gergiev/LSO Brahms 1/2 and I was also pleasantly surprised by symphonies 3/4 in a new release by Jurowski and his London Philhramonic on its London Philharmonic Orchestra Label.
Jurowski’s interpretations are straightforward — no messing about. Tempos are mainstream and the playing is generally first class. What really shines in this recording are the myriad of Brahms’ incredible counterpoint and orchestral inner lines. The notes on the page look deceptively easy. They’re not. What is difficult is producing accurate intonation and each orchestral section (many times, violas or horns) maintaining ensemble during complicated syncopations or counterpoint. Jurowski brings these to the fore (in many recordings, they are subjugated to the murk of a recording) and the London Philharmonic does not let him down.
For comparison, I took out my trusty Bruno Walter/CBS SO/Sony CD and Simon Rattle’s recent Brahms cycle with his Berlin Philharmoniker on EMI. I began with the Jurowski, followed by Walter and Rattle. The order was instructive. The Walter performance is justly famous and Rattle’s cycle is very fine. Jurowski and his London band held up well, with some glorious solo playing (horn and clarinet, especially) and fine ensemble. If these were the only tenets for purchase, I’d urge you to give Jurowski a try.
What surprised me was the quality of the recording. Returning to Jurowski after Walter and Rattle, the LPO’s strings sounded undernourished. They play beautifully and they ’seem’ to be projecting (and I know it to be a crack string section), but the odd acoustic of London’s Royal Festival Hall (taken from live performances) has not been tamed by the engineers and lets the player’s down. The equally odd acoustics of the LSO’s Barbican Hall (as heard on its recent Brahms) have been sorted somewhat, so the luminous strings of the LSO shine through. Not so on the LPO’s label. A shame, as there is much to admire.
Recorded live at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London, on 27 October 2010 (Symphony No. 3) and 28 May 2011 (Symphony No. 4)
Producer: Andrew Walton, K&A Productions
Engineer: Mike Clements (Symphony No. 3), Andrew Lang, K&A Productions (Symphony No. 4)
Total playing time 76:22
Released February 2014