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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.1 in C minor, op.68 (1876)
Academic Festival Overture, op.80 (1880)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Recorded at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, May 1993 (Symphony) and September 1993 (Overture)
ELATUS 2564-60435-2 [58:01]

These recordings were originally issued in the early 1990s on the Erato label, in a series which included the other three symphonies and various shorter orchestral works. Competition is intense in this area, of course, from both modern and historic issues, but a reissue of a reading by as significant a musician as Daniel Barenboim is not to be lightly dismissed.

The orchestral playing from the unsurpassed Chicago Symphony is of the very highest standard, and they follow Barenboim all the way through his sometimes wilfully flexible account of this great masterpiece. As far as the interpretation goes, I feared the worst during the slow introduction; I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the performance much, because Barenboim’s mannerism of adopting the slowest possible tempo, and then slowing up even more at the end of all phrases and at the approach of each and every cadence is much in evidence here, so that the music struggled to get going.

But, once we get into the Allegro, things got better, and Barenboim and his players deliver a powerfully dramatic account. In particular, the mounting climax, starting low down in the contra-bassoon and culminating with the recapitulation of the first subject, is superbly controlled and overwhelming in its impact.

The slow movement is marked Andante sostenuto, and some listeners will feel that Barenboim overdoes the sostenuto and lingers a little too lovingly. But the phrasing is very beautiful, and this movement must not at any cost be hurried. Woodwind solos, in particular from the principle oboe, are elegantly expressive, and the contributions from the leader (sadly uncredited) are beautifully played.

The Un poco allegretto third movement is an original and very Brahmsian concept, with relaxed, serenade-like outer sections flanking a vigorous central scherzo, where it was good to hear the important details of trumpet writing coming through so clearly. The dark slow introduction to the finale takes us back to the tragic world of the symphony’s opening, and also, unfortunately, to Barenboim’s tendency to exaggerate contrasts. The transition, with its horn and flute solos, is handled superbly, but the opening of the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, with the entry of the great C major theme, is curiously diffident, and is followed by a misjudged precipitous rush into the ensuing tutti. Then, when we return to the ‘big tune’ at the start of the development section, it is uncomfortably hurried; not sure what Barenboim was doing here. I don’t think it’s a problem caused by different takes, as it sounds intentional, yet it doesn’t ‘work’ – not for me anyway.

The turbulent climax of the development is done with conviction, and the return of the dark music of the introduction has real weight and drama. The re-emergence of the joyful second subject comes as a true relief, with especially sweet, pure tone from the Chicago violins. But the coda is disappointing – Barenboim achieves neither the grandeur of Karajan nor the ecstasy of Toscanini, mainly because he doesn’t prepare the ground with sufficient care to create a neutral base from which excitement can grow.

Not an ‘ideal’ performance, then, if such a thing exists. Yet it is one which is undoubtedly worth hearing, a thinking, living version, well recorded, and featuring world-class orchestral playing.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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