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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor op. 68 (1876)
Symphony No. 2 in D major op. 73 (1877)
Symphony No. 3 in F major op. 90 (1883)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor op. 98 (1885)
‘Eleven Choral Preludes’, for organ op. Post. (1896) arranged by Henk de Vlieger
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam/Jaap van Zweden
Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Holland/Jaap van Zweden*
Recorded June-August 2002, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, Holland; Recorded April 1999, MCO Studio Hilversum, Holland* DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99946 [46:31+74:39+72:09]


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Any new set of Brahms Symphonies has to compete with the best and this is a very tall order. Even at super-budget price, it almost impossible not to be mindful of established rival versions when reviewing the merits of this release from Jaap van Zweden on Brilliant Classics.

Jaap van Zweden, 42 years old, is a former concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and must be steeped in the romantic symphonic repertoire. He took up conducting in 1995 and is currently music director of the Residentie Orchestra in The Hague . On this set he directs them in the Symphonies 1, 3 and 4 whereas the Symphony No. 2 is performed with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra of Holland.

The first, third and fourth symphonies, recorded in Amsterdam last summer, favour the woodwind section; the strings are detailed yet sound oddly veiled. The 1999 Hilversum recording of the Second Symphony has a better orchestral balance but it suffers from a languid and inert first movement. Clocking in at twenty-one minutes, several times it nearly grinds to a halt. By contrast the syncopated sections of the Allegretto are so light they could come from a Tchaikovsky ballet.

Van Zweden too often takes a leisurely, pastoral view of Brahms. Most big movements tend to sag in the middle. What he does bring out – partly due to the recording – is the wealth of great writing for the woodwind, and how important this is to the cycle. I sense that he is most probably a fine Bruckner conductor.

The dotted rhythms of the finale of the Third Symphony are skilfully negotiated by the Dutch players, yet a fairly good interpretation is let down by a disappointing third movement. Its glorious autumnal colours sound weary and the trio section is four-square. The approach is almost too respectful.

Also in the monumental Fourth, phrasing is blurred at the edges and regularly wanders. Paradoxically, this brings with it a spontaneous feel to the set and convinced me of the honesty of the van Zweden’s interpretations.

Most impressive of all is the First Symphony, which I played last. The tragic expressiveness of the opening movement is fully sustained and the tempi are just right. The van Zweden’s reading of the first has an urgency missing elsewhere on the set. The rich string sound in the Andante provides a rapturous interlude.

The filler on Disc 2, rather than the usual overtures, is an orchestration by Henk de Vlieger of Brahms’ "Eleven Chorale Preludes", Op.122, his last composition. Originally for organ, its inclusion here is a fascinating oddity. There are some surprisingly delicate orchestral textures contrasted with the sinewy lyricism typical of Hindemith. A most rewarding bonus.

Not surprisingly the competition is fierce and numerous between alternative versions of the complete Brahms symphonies. Despite the merits this set from Jaap van Zweden on Brilliant Classics is not really in the same league as numerous other more recommendable sets.

Many good judges feel that the clear first choice is the modern digital set from Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on DG 435 683-2 (4). The analogue set from the late Herbert von Karajan again with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on DG 453 097-2 (2) has also been a popular top recommendation for some time.

Ever since its original release in the early 1980s my own particular favourite set of the Brahms symphonies has been the early digital recordings by the late Günter Wand with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra on RCA 74321 20283-2 (2).

At super-budget price this release from Brilliant Classics is certainly worth a listen. A "live"-sounding set, honestly presented.

Michael Cookson

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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