> Johannes Brahms - 4 Symphonies [JP]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 Ė 1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op, 68 (1876)
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op, 73 (1877)
Symphony No. 3 in F, Op, 90 (1883)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op, 98 (1885)
Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a (1873)
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1881)
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,
conducted by Karl Böhm.
recorded in Vienna, Musikvereinssaal, May 1975 (Op. 68, 73 and 98) June 1975 (Op. 90), Musikverein, Grosser Saal June 1976 (Op. 53) and February 1977 (Op. 56a)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Collectors Edition 471 443-2 [4CDs: 220í29"]
Sir Adrian Boult always used to say, when interviewed about Brahms interpretations, that one could gauge the calibre of a Brahms interpreter by his or her ability to conduct the Tragic Overture. By this criterion Böhm need fear no-one. His long experience with the Viennese classics and with Brahms in particular makes this set most welcome, although there are still a very few niggles.

When these recordings were originally released on vinyl they also appeared as a four record set in a box. Since those days, parts of the original set have been released on CD but this happens to be the first time in the UK market that all four symphonies have been made available in this format. These recordings of the first and second symphonies had not been released before, although Böhmís earlier performance of No. 1 with the Berlin Philharmonic has been in circulation and strongly favoured by pundits.

This set is very welcome as the quality of the CD transfer is vastly superior to the vinyl pressings, and we can appreciate the tonal splendour of the Vienna Philharmonic in its home, captured beautifully by the DG engineers, and enhanced by Böhmís very acute ear for orchestral balance.

Elsewhere, this set has been criticised for being on the slow side of interpretations of the symphonies but, upon comparison, Böhm is about the same as the Virgin set by Christoph Eschenbach with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The Houston set, lauded elsewhere, does include the first movement repeats in the first movements of the first, second and third symphonies, whereas Böhm does not. Otherwise the two sets are completely different. The Böhm set is very much alive, and sometimes I feel somewhat in the wilderness in finding the Eschenbach performances downright dull.

The first symphony is rich and sustained but the earlier Berlin Philharmonic version mentioned above is slightly more dynamic. Even so, the Vienna Philharmonic, at full tilt, gives a very satisfying performance. This is coupled with the Haydn Variations, a marvellous performance.

Disc two contains a wonderfully warm interpretation of the second symphony, and the coda has a tremendous build up of energy and tension that is cumulative rather than developed with excessive speed. The second symphony is coupled with the Alto Rhapsody and the Tragic Overture.

Christa Ludwig is the alto soloist and her command of the work is first class. The only reservation would be that her tone is at times a little strained. I would not put this performance at the head of the list of competing versions of this relatively short work.

The final disc in the box couples the third and fourth symphonies, and has been available in this format on the Australian Eloquence label. It is very welcome here.

So, a warm welcome for very competent, enjoyable performances of these favourite works, well recorded and presented and also inexpensive. Buy and enjoy.

John Phillips


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