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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor Op. 98 (1884) [40’47"]
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1880) [9’26"]
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1881) [12’11"]
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. Leipzig, Germany in 1977, presumably Gewandhaus (no details given) ADD
ELOQUENCE 476 2816 [63.07]

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The sweetness in the string tone, allied with the Leipzig acoustic and glowing woodwind and brass timbres make this an outstanding disc. Masur in his younger days made this orchestra play their hearts out and this was evident in these performances. The problem was that the sound was affected by the variable transfer quality of the original Philips LPs. With this Australian-produced CD, there is still some very slight background tape hiss, but on the original vinyls, this was masked by surface imperfections. With hiss now hardly perceptible these performances may be enjoyed in all their glory.

In many ways, this fourth symphony of Brahms is his masterpiece among the symphonies. In this performance the first movement, with its extended coda, makes for thrilling listening. The slow movement is warmly played and is unlikely to be anything other than fully enjoyed by anyone coming to it for the first time. As most music lovers know, Brahms put out the boat for this symphony in terms of orchestration, for in addition to the normal symphonic complement he added a triangle. In some recordings this slight brightening of the texture can almost go unnoticed but here it is clearly audible, making its contribution to the symphonic argument.

What is notable is the absolute rightness of the sound of this symphony and of the two overtures. The East German (as it was then) instrumental timbres are extremely attractive, especially the sound of the woodwind, so important in this symphony. The microphones are set somewhat back from the orchestra, so a clear concert perspective of the players is the main audio characteristic.

Apparently, Universal allows each of its marketing managers in each of the geographical sectors, to choose repertoire for releases on Eloquence. The company should take note of what is happening ‘down under’ in the hands of Cyrus Meher-Homji. Whilst in Europe the same recordings are endlessly re-cycled on different labels, Australian Eloquence offers outstanding classic performances which elsewhere have never seen the light of day.

In addition to the fourth symphony, Masur gives us the two overtures Brahms wrote, in the early 1880s. The first, the Academic Festival Overture was written for the University of Breslau which was conferring on Brahms the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Brahms used student songs in the Overture, ending with the famous Gaudeamus Igitur. The overall atmosphere is extremely jolly. This was almost too much for Brahms to bear. Very shortly afterwards he produced his Tragic Overture in a minor key, thought by some to be a first movement to a symphony, but with the rest of it missing.

The playing of the Overtures, like that of the symphony is exemplary, and at Australian Eloquence prices (about £3.75 per disc plus postage), this makes superb value. Good notes plus tasteful covers and without the sonic alterations present on the European Eloquence discs.

Very highly recommended.

John Phillips

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