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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


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flair, insight, controversy

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alternatively Crotchet

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 (1868) [44.50]
Schicksalslied (1868) [15.53]
Academic Festival Overture (1880) [9.53]
Symphony No. 2 (1869) [35.34]
Symphony No. 3 (1883) [38.32]
Symphony No. 4 (1885) [41.36]
Haydn Variations (1873) [12.37]
Tragic Overture (1880) [18.39]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. Abbey Rd, Studio 1, June 1989 (2, 4); Apr 1990 (Variations, Tragic), Apr 1991 (1, Academic, Schicksalslied), Dec 1991 (3). DDD
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 5009132 [3 CDs: 70:33 + 78.53 + 72:52]

Sawallisch was born in Munich in 1923. Attending a performance of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at the age of 11 determined him on a life of music-making. He served in the Wehrmacht 1942-46 and was taken prisoner in Italy. His progress as music director took him from Augsburg to Salzburg, Aachen, Wiesbaden, Köln, Vienna (with the Symphony, not the Phil) and Brahms' 'own' Hamburg. He also established a strong connection with Philadelphia although towards the end of his time there in 2003 ill health made his concerts increasingly rare.
Reticent and unflamboyant Sawallisch has never relished or courted for himself the dazzle and glamour of a Bernstein, a Karajan or a Stokowski. His virtues are bound up with his fidelity to the score; more of a Boult then. He conducts without the score in front of him. His reflexes are good and there is electricity in his control of pacing. More than many he also impresses with his careful attention to harmony as the wind playing at the start of the finales of the First and Second Symphonies pays warm testimony.
The Third - a particular favourite of mine - is relaxed and I did not find it as strong as I was hoping especially in the first movement. The third and fourth movements are fluent and gracious. Overall, deliberation is too much in the ascendant here. This does not dislodge my reference version - Walter and the CBS Symphony - though the EMI sound is much more civilised.
The snappier episodes in the Haydn Variations are rattled through with virility and at a speed that prompts surprising parallel-drawing with Mendelssohn and even Berlioz. The attack at the start of the Tragic Overture is gripping and Sawallisch brings out the same darker shadows we also experience in Dvořák's Seventh Symphony - he has recorded the later Dvořáks for Philips. At other points, as in the great yelping cry of the violins in the peroration to the finale of the First Symphony, Sawallisch turns away from piercing intensity.
The brass are made very pleasingly 'present' by the EMI engineers even when not centre-stage and this facet can be heard again in the finale of the Third Symphony which grasps splendour more than once. It is also immanent in the Fourth which scorches along exactly as it should. In the finale it is brassily Gothic - autumnally spacious without dawdling.
I am not sure what has happened to these recordings for they appear to have had little in the way of a first issue life. They re-emerged as part of a much bigger Brahms-Sawallisch EMI box and later in a bargain basement box from Brilliant Classics. Perhaps their shelf life will now be as long as Sawallisch’s never-out-of-the-catalogue EMI set of Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle.
Sawallisch emerges from this set undemonstrative but with honours high.
Rob Barnett


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