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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876)* [49í33"]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877)** [42í13"]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883)*** [37í34"]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885)*** [40í10"]
WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, Köln/Semyon Bychkov
Recorded in Kölner Philharmonie *19-24 August, 2002; **5-8 April, 2004; ***13-17 May, 2002; ****20-24 October 2003
DSD Super Audio CD
AVIE AV2051 [3 CDs: 49í33" + 42í13 + 78í07]


The catalogues are so full of recordings of the symphonies of Brahms, either in full cycles or recordings of individual symphonies, that one is bound to question whether yet more recordings are strictly necessary. Thatís a question best addressed after considering all four performances contained in this box, which, incidentally, Avie is offering at less than full price.

The Russian conductor, Semyon Bychkov (b.1952) emigrated to the USA in 1975. I recall that he burst onto the international scene, seemingly from nowhere, in the mid-1980s making a number of recordings that attracted a good deal of attention. The profile of his career then receded somewhat, no doubt as the recording industry began to "downsize". In recent years, however, he has once again begun recording, this time with the WDR Sinfonie-Orchester, Köln, of which he has been Chief Conductor since 1997. I have seen favourable reviews of several of their recordings but this is the first time Iíve heard the partnership. On the evidence of these CDs Bychkov and his orchestra have formed a fruitful and effective relationship.

One pleasing thing to report is that, having followed all the performances, except that of the Fourth, with a score, it is clear that Bychkov and his players are splendidly attentive to Brahmsís dynamic markings. In general, with only a couple of exceptions, I liked Bychkovís choice of tempi. In particular, though he rarely rushes his fences, the speeds in the quicker movements are lithe and athletic. There are a good number of modifications within the basic tempo of a movement but almost without exception these modifications are "traditional" and fully justified. Rhythms are well sprung and this, together with apposite pacing, means that the music has a good sense of forward movement. Between them Bychkov and the engineers have balanced the orchestral sound very well so that there is always the necessary clarity of texture. Bad Brahms will sound turgid, whether the fault lies in speeds, balance or rhythms. This is good Brahms.

In the First Symphony the introduction is suitably spacious but not massive and thereís a feeling of forward impetus from the very start. In the main body of the movement, where the exposition repeat is taken (hooray!), Bychkov drives the music forward strongly but never to excess. The performance has purpose. The andante is warm without ever being over-indulgent and we hear good work from solo violin, horn, clarinet and oboe. The third movement is, like its companions, well-judged with good, but not pedantic attention paid to the markings. Perhaps the poco tranquillo at the end and the bars that preface this passage (CD 1 track 3 from 4í19") are taken a bit too slowly. However, if so then this is a minor blemish. The finale is well done. Once the allegro is launched itís well articulated. Thereís plenty of weight in the playing but strong underlying rhythms mean that thereís no suggestion of sluggishness. When the final apotheosis of the chorale is reached (track 4, 16í57") the brakes are only gently applied, thank goodness, so that the moment is grand but not grandiose. All in all this is a fine and direct, no-nonsense reading of the symphony.

The lovely first movement of the Second Symphony is taken at a flowing, easy tempo which I like very much indeed. Bychkov doesnít indulge in any autumnal wallowing but, instead, keeps the music on the move, which is greatly to its advantage. As in the First Symphony he observes the exposition repeat and gets full marks from me for so doing. The lyricism of this movement is conveyed excellently but thereís strength and excitement in the climactic passage between cues G and J (CD 2 track 1 10í52"- 12í54"). The adagio is well shaped as is the third movement, which is crisply and buoyantly delivered. Brahms marks the finale allegro con spirito and Bychkovís way with it is indeed spirited. His reading is fresh and uninhibited but at the same time itís well disciplined and the recapitulation is particularly joyful. My one reservation concerns the coda which is perhaps just a bit too fast and furious. It would be extremely exciting in a concert performance but may be found wearing on repeated listening. That apart, Iíd regard this traversal of the symphony as a success.

I also enjoyed the Third Symphony very much. Once again the exposition repeat is made in the first movement. Thereís urgency in the development but the reading certainly doesnít stray across the boundary and become frenetic. On the contrary, I felt that the music was always given appropriate space. Iím not entirely sure that Iím convinced by Bychkovís account of the andante, which is quite leisurely. Iím always wary of the stopwatch but it may be worth noting that Bychkov takes 9í13" for this movement. By contrast, among other recordings on my shelves, chosen at random, Gunter Wand (RCA) takes only 7í39". Kempe with the Berlin Philharmonic (on Testament) is only marginally slower at 8í15". Haitink, in his recent LSO Live reading, takes 8í53". In fairness to Bychkov I ought to record that the other version I checked was by Fritz Reiner (RCA), who clocks in at 10í00". Iím much happier with the Poco Allegretto, which is shaped very naturally. This movement, warmly introduced by the cellos, features some excellent woodwind playing. The finale is thrusting and energetic but when Brahms winds the pace down as the ending approaches (Track 4, 7í08") Bychkov relaxes very convincingly and judges the un poco sostenuto splendidly, the dying embers of the music glowing warmly, as they should.

In the Fourth Symphony Bychkov presents a strongly projected and atmospheric first movement. The last few pages are especially dramatic. The andante is affectionately done but the Allegro giocoso is pleasingly vigorous, with a real spring in the step. The concluding passacaglia is powerful and dynamic. Bychkov has clearly noted the concluding word in Brahmsís marking, Allegro energico e passionato. However, he doesnít overplay his hand and the quieter passages, such as the flute-led variation (track 8, 3í12") are handled very well. At 5í44" the great opening chords of the passacaglia return in full cry and from here on the performance is particularly vivid and dramatic. The playing has real bite and a most exciting conclusion to the symphony, and the cycle, results.

I began by posing the question whether or not we need yet another Brahms symphony cycle in the catalogue. I think the answer must be that there is room for a fine, idiomatic set such as this. Iím not yet sure if it rivals some of the very best sets that I know, such as Toscanini or Kempe (both Testament) or Wand (RCA). Only repeated listening will answer that question. It offers a different view to the evolving, thoughtful Haitink cycle (LSO Live) but is no less, or more, valid for that. However, I doubt if anyone acquiring this set will be disappointed for Bychkov is a reliable, dynamic and understanding guide to these works and he has something to say about these symphonies. His performances mix attention to detail and a long view in good balance. He is very well served by his players, with whom he clearly has a strong rapport. Their performances are captured in very good, clear sound though I have only listened in conventional format, not SACD.

I have enjoyed these performances very much indeed and look forward to listening to them again in the future just for sheer pleasure.

John Quinn

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