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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1885) [41.48]
Hungarian Dances Nos. 2, 4-9 (1868) [22.51]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Blackheath Concert Hall, London, 21-22 March 2005 (Symphony); Colosseum, Town Hall, Watford, 22-23 April 2006.
NAXOS 8.570233 [64:39]

Here it is: the final release in the set of Brahms symphonies from Marin Alsop with the London Philharmonic. Previous reviews have praised just about every aspect of this new Naxos cycle, and while I admit to arriving somewhat late on the scene I have to admit that all expectations are realised. 

So that you know where I’m coming from, my formative introduction to the symphonies of Brahms came with the 1983 live cycle on DG with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. The influence of those initial impressions of intensity and edgy freedom of expression are of course hard to shake, but there is always more than one way to skin a great piece of music, and later on I was as likely to be found settling down with a good book and Herbert von Karajan’s 1989 recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic. Other versions have passed my way as well – Günter Wand’s 2001 RCA cycle with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra for instance, and those lovely old Bruno Walter recordings with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra now on Sony, which still sound surprisingly good given their vintage. 

If done properly, Brahms’s symphonic writing means that you will have read the same page a multitude of times in that ‘good book’ you have in your hand while listening. The content and meaning of the words will remain as obscure as at the first attempt as your ears and attention are absorbed and enthralled by the lush musical garden that gradually unfolds through your loudspeakers, or in my case headphones. With Alsop and the LPO you might as well give up on reading at all, and give yourself over to a feast of wonderful music-making.

Marin Alsop’s tempi are measured and sustained in what seems to me an ideal way in this symphony. The first movement seems at first urbane and restrained, but the ceiling is set high, and there is plenty of room for bite and drama in the music – never hurried or unstable, but with a gloss of perfect preparation which seems to allow the listener to plunge directly and deeply into Brahms’s inspired vision. The same is true of the second Andante moderato movement, in which the winds initially shine with lush resonance. Intonation is crucial here, and the LSO’s wind and brass are spot on – playing as one. The timing and anticipation is beautifully measured in advance of the ‘big tune’ at 8:55, which is turned out here without histrionics, but as a noble and almost infinite field of sound – a bounteous source for a composer like Elgar, whose own ‘Enigma’ variations spring immediately to mind.

A lightness of touch is required of the third movement’s Allegro giocoso, and Alsop blows away any cobwebs which may have gathered in a sweep of freshness. There’s a slightly anticipatory rhythm at 4:23 caused by an edit, but this will hopefully only be noticeable to fully trained and overly picky reviewers. The final movement brings back the measured, sustained feel of the first, but with that extra turbulence, and those quicksilver touches of detail in the orchestration pointed subtly and superbly by all concerned in this recording. I was wondering if that slow central section wasn’t just a little too slow and lingering, but the re-entry of the full orchestra at around 6:00 is made all the more magical for being delayed for that extra few ounces of ‘down-time’, and the final run builds in intensity to create a fully satisfying close.

The Hungarian Dances presented here are the ‘leftovers’ from Brahms’s own orchestrations of nos. 1, 3 and 10, covered in volume 2 of this series. The dances here have been newly orchestrated by Peter Breiner in an imaginative commission from Naxos especially for this recording. Breiner’s versions respect Brahms’s orchestral resonances for the most part, but inject quite a bit of extra jazzy impact and violinistic Hungarian idiom, emphasising some of those seriously fun syncopations with extra percussion and brass. There is a danger of creating a set of little P.D.Q. Bach monsters here, but with the essence of Brahms’s ideas held largely intact I admire the way Breiner has stretched these pieces just enough to make them into genuine orchestral showpieces, without turning the smiles they bring into disrespectful guffaws. 

I think the way is clear – I simply must have the rest of this set.

Dominy Clements



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