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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73 (1877) [44:51]
Hungarian Dances: No. 1 in G minor (orch. Brahms) [3:24]; No. 3 in F (orch. Brahms) [2:46]; No. 10 in F (orch.Brahms) [1:52]; No. 17 in F# minor (orch. Dvořák) [3:37]; No. 18 in D (orch. Dvořák) [1:31]; No. 19 in B minor (orch. Dvořák) [2:38]; No. 20 in E minor (orch. Dvořák) [2:44]; No. 21 in E minor (orch. Dvořák) [1:42]

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Blackheath Concert Hall, London, March 2005 (Symphony); Watford Colosseum, Watford, 28 July 2005
NAXOS 8.557429 [65:06]

I expect you have, like me a number of recordings of great music which have become immovable points of reference; I’m struggling to avoid using the current buzz-word ‘iconic’! In my case the ultimate one of these is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s recording of Brahms’ Symphony no.2 with the LPO. I acquired this - or rather my family did - in the mid-1950s, transferred very badly from 78s onto the old Decca Ace of Clubs label. Despite the hiss and general crud, the sheer beauty of Furtwängler’s reading shone through effortlessly.

The dangerous flip-side of such touchstones, however, is that they can get in the way of further exploration. Thus I cannot help comparing every recording I hear of this symphony, probably my favourite work of Brahms, to that Furtwängler recording. I point that out to add just a little weight and emphasis to the apparently straightforward statement that I have enjoyed Marin Alsop’s new recording enormously. The great thing is that she has managed - with the same orchestra used by Furtwängler - to penetrate the dark interior of a work which is often seen, bafflingly, as serene and uncomplicated. It is in fact one of the composer’s most complex works, juxtaposing the pastoral poetry of the first and third movements with the brooding intensity of the great Adagio non troppo. I felt that Alsop was right in there with the music from beginning to the end, missing no detail, responding sensitively to every inflection or change of landscape. The entry of the violins near the beginning of the opening Allegro non troppo with that glorious sweeping theme after the restrained opening phrases from horns and woodwind is a case in point. She doesn’t wallow, or tempt the strings to give it the ‘full works’, yet they produce the sweetest and most radiant tone, which gave me the appropriate emotional surge. The hairs on the back of my neck tell no lies! Just a pity that the wonderful horn solo in the coda doesn’t have quite the authority and nobility of tone it really needs.

The Adagio is given a most heart-felt rendition, with the sinister music of trombones and tuba casting deep shadows over the central development. The final climax has a true sense of despair, though the coda seems just a little perfunctory in Alsop’s hands; I wanted her to give the music more breathing space here. The lovely Allegretto is allowed to display all of its charm and playfulness, while the finale exults inspiringly, and builds to a rip-roaring conclusion. Full marks to the LPO trombone section for a beautifully balanced and very, very loud final D major triad!

However, there are two points where Alsop lets me down by deciding to ‘improve’ Brahms where there is absolutely no need to do so. In the first movement, she allows the tempo to slacken for the big unison theme with its leaping octaves and dotted rhythms. Brahms merely puts ‘quasi ritenente’ – ‘as if slowing down’ – and that qualification ‘as if’ has to be observed. Similarly, she puts on the brakes heavily for the second subject in the finale, where the composer’s direction is simply ‘largamente’ – ‘broadly’ – indicating at most a barely perceptible easing of the tempo. The worst of these adjustments is that they require the conductor to give the music the ‘hurry-up’ to get back to the main speed – which is done unsubtly here. A great pity, for without these irritating mannerisms, this would be close to a great recorded performance.

The sound is up to Naxos’s highest standard, with a splendid ‘bloom’, while allowing all the teeming detail of the score to register. The ‘filler’ (a pretty substantial one) is a group of eight of the Hungarian Dances, some orchestrated by the composer himself, others by Dvořák. Alsop’s great sense of rhythm, and her ability to make the music really dance off the page, is a huge asset in bringing these to sparkling life. My reservations above shouldn’t put anyone off acquiring this superb disc.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by Kevin Sutton



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