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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. DvořŠk) [3:37]; No. 18 in D (orch. DvořŠk) [1:31]; No. 19 in B minor (orch. DvořŠk) [2:38]; No. 20 in E minor (orch. DvořŠk) [2:44]; No. 21 in E minor (orch. DvořŠk) [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]
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This is the second instalment in Marin Alsopís ongoing Brahms cycle. Both its predecessor and this latest offering have been widely praised by colleagues. Iíve heard her both on radio and on disc in twentieth century repertoire but Iíd yet to encounter her in "standard" repertoire so I was curious to hear her in Brahms and especially in what has long been my favourite of the four symphonies.

She immediately scores high marks with me for taking the exposition repeat in the first movement. This is not so often done. I can understand why conductors omit the repeat for there is an issue of structural balance. Taking the repeat elongates the first movement by some five minutes - in this performance - and thereby means that, in Ms Alsopís hands, the first movement accounts for 20:05 of the 44:51 that she takes for the whole symphony. So there is a danger of imbalance but I must say I didnít feel that this particular reading was unbalanced and, in any case, why wouldnít one wish to hear such wonderful music twice? Also, omitting the repeat means that the first time bars must be left out and thatís a pity since the music they contain is well worth hearing, as Ms Alsop demonstrates.

In his good liner-note Robert Pascall rightly draws attention to the dark side of this movement. The Second is conventionally regarded as Brahmsís sunniest symphony and many conductors focus on that side rather than the darker element, which is mainly to be found in the development section. Marin Alsop, it seems to me, is one such and I donít find that her interpretation brings out the dark side of the music. Thatís not to disparage her reading in any way. A "sunny" approach is perfectly valid and, in any case, even if you appreciate a performance that hints at deeper waters, as I do, you may not want to hear such a reading every day. A couple of years ago, for example, I reviewed what I thought was an exceptionally unsettling account of this movement by Furtwängler. Tremendously impressive though that was, it wouldnít do for everyday listening. No, it seems to me that Marin Alsop gives us a well-imagined and highly enjoyable rendition of this movement, one which is built on rhythmic vitality, warm phrasing and excellent attention to dynamics.

Ms. Alsop judges the start of the second movement beautifully, encouraging the celli to sing out. Later thereís excellent work by the LPOís principal horn and, indeed, this is matched by the other wind soloists. Ms. Alsop clearly loves this music and under her guidance the strings phrase generously. She pays great attention to sustaining the musical line and this I like very much. In the central section of the movement thereís just the right amount of powerful projection before the return of the warm lyricism that characterised the opening paragraphs.

Thereís some nice, pert wind playing at the start of the Allegretto and later the strings match their wind colleagues in agility. This movement is a fairly brief interlude in the overall scheme of things, a bit of a musical sorbet in fact. Here it receives a fresh and engaging reading.

Ms. Alsop catches well the mood of suppressed energy at the start of the finale. Once Brahms increases the volume she presses the music home splendidly, striking a balance between energy and lyricism that seems to me to be extremely well judged. The end of this ebullient movement is irresistibly jubilant here with the LPO brass, who have served their conductor well throughout the whole performance, well to the fore.

In summary, this is an invigorating and very enjoyable reading of this fine symphony. The LPO plays attentively and with commitment. On the evidence of this release, this Brahms cycle is not one thatís being made just for the sake of it but rather because Marin Alsop wanted to do it and has something definite to say about the music.

As a filler weíre offered eight of the Hungarian Dances, three of them in orchestrations by Brahms, the remainder in orchestral dress tailored for them by DvořŠk. I have to confess that these pieces arenít really my cup of tea but they are well done. In common with a lot of so-called light music these dances arenít easy to do well. On this occasion the performances benefit from enthusiastic playing. Equally important is the fact that the dances are shaped affectionately by Marin Alsop, who displays a good, intuitive sense of rubato.

A most enjoyable disc which can be recommended confidently and enthusiastically.

John Quinn

See also reviews by Kevin Sutton and Gwyn Parry-Jones (December Recording of the Month)

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