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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [47:40]
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880) [14:01]
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1880) [10:38]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
recorded at Watford Colosseum, Watford, UK, 18-19 January 2004
NAXOS 8.557428 [72:42]

 

From her earliest RCA discs with the Colorado Symphony to her more recent work for Naxos with the Bournemouth Symphony, Marin Alsop has - rightly or wrongly - become particularly identified with 20th Century American music. The outstanding Barber series recently completed with the Royal Scottish National exemplifies this. But in fact, fine all-round musician in the Bernstein tradition that she is, her concert programmes reveal a much wider variety of programming. With her Naxos CDs selling well, and her name by now familiar in every musical household, it was only a matter of time before CD collectors would be allowed to hear her in ‘mainstream’ repertoire. So this issue - the first in a major Brahms cycle - has been eagerly awaited. Few will be disappointed.

As a visit to her website (www.marinalsop.com) will confirm, Brahms is a composer with whom she feels a special affinity. He’s "a composer very close to my heart. I remember hearing a recording of the Brahms B flat string sextet when I was 12 years old and becoming absolutely transfixed by the experience. For the first time in my life I felt deeply moved by music and I understood the extreme emotional impact that music could have on us. As I immersed myself in his compositions, I could relate to and appreciate his struggles and life conflicts. To hear his majestic First Symphony, which he laboured over for decades, is to be changed! Recording his music and sharing performances and ideas about him and his music with audiences is a dream come true for me."

If you’re interested in reading more about Alsop’s approach to this project, I suggest you click on www.naxos.com/marin/brahms-symphonies: it’ll whet your appetite!

This First Symphony is an impressive achievement. It’s superbly recorded in the Watford Colosseum; it’s lovingly shaped by Alsop; it’s played with tremendous conviction by the LPO; and it costs £5. Go buy it now, or read on!

Although it might be described as a ‘middle-of-the-road’ performance, there’s no trace of routine or blandness. But, unique though it may be, it does offer a mix of views of a piece which has been recorded variously by hundreds of orchestras and conductors over the years. The transparency and clarity of textures recalls the Mackerras chamber orchestra version on Telarc; whereas its weight and breadth (more about this later) are more reminiscent of the Germanic tradition represented by Jochum - also with the LPO - or Abbado’s Berlin set. (These would be my benchmarks. Ask anyone else, and another recording might be cited: after all, the catalogue’s littered with top-notch Brahms Symphony recordings!)

The character of the sound is very appealing. Lots of detail can be heard, including much that often escapes our attention. This can be attributed equally to the openness of the Naxos recording, to Alsop’s meticulousness, and to the polish and security which distinguishes the playing of the London musicians. Orchestral sonorities, whether soli or tutti, are notably refined. I noticed over and over again the extremes of the pitch spectrum coming through with impressive clarity. For example, the first violins’ dotted rhythms in the opening bars of the Tragic Overture, rising to high A an octave and a bit above the stave, are wonderfully clean and firm. In fact the top end of the orchestra invariably brightens even the most solid of Brahmsian tuttis. Similarly, at the bottom end, the weight and presence of percussion (though they’re not overly loud per se) at the end of the Academic Festival Overture is positively thrilling. The first statement of the finale’s chorale is distinguished by beautiful trombones, with the gorgeous 16ft voice of the contrabassoon uncommonly prominent. And expressive dialogue involving cellos and basses - and there’s lots of it! - is difficult to ignore, even when overladen with heavy instrumentation. Ms Alsop has her orchestra ‘speak’ to us.

On top of all this, there are some lovely solos. Examples abound, so much so that it’s almost pointless singling one out. But I must mention the flute in the introduction to the Symphony’s fourth movement, soon after the Beethovenian struggle towards C major finally resolves itself - at Bar 38, precisely three minutes in. It’s forte, as marked, not fortissimo, but it carries its song like a bird in flight, and sounds gloriously affirmative.

We’ve the London Philharmonic to thank for all this. But Alsop makes her mark by balancing orchestral textures and voicing the harmony to ensure that we hear precisely what Brahms wanted us to hear. We can’t take this for granted, given Brahms’s tendency to dense colourings (in the First Symphony especially) and his eccentric loyalty to non-chromatic hand horns without valves. One notorious instance of Brahms’s inconsistency in this respect - the finale of the Symphony at Bar 267 [11:33] - is very nicely judged by Alsop. Horns are marked fortissimo, and frequently blare out as marked, but not here! This is a sensible move, and illustrative of Alsop’s artistic maturity. One of the replying phrases (the third, in Bar 269) features wind only, with (annoyingly…) the horns less prominent. So conductors have a choice here - of underplaying the first and second phrase (so the third does not disappoint); of dramatically attacking the first and second, as written (but risking disappointment at the third); or naughtily rewriting the horn parts at Bar 269 (the third phrase) to make the moment ‘work’ for anyone without a score! Alsop - brilliantly, but uncontroversially! - steers a midway course.

Only once did I find busy string patterns (in the third movement - Bar 57 [1:17]) being allowed to mask what should be prominent solo wind lines: I can’t be sure whether this is a miscalculation, an engineer’s problem, a purely personal preference of mine, or a case of insufficient time for retakes?

Tempi fluctuate in the Furtwängler tradition. Many instances of this are expressively defensible, but I would argue that some of it is intrusive. When, at the height of the first movement’s development section, Brahms steers the music on to a dominant pedal in readiness for the recapitulation - with a tremendous sense of arrival, at Bar 321 [11:33] - Alsop suddenly holds back. I find this mannered, but the ‘signposting’ effect is undeniable, and the rushing semiquavers which propel the music forward thereafter are unquestionably exciting. Again, the expressive string build up (or rather ‘wind down’) to the oboe’s second theme (Bars 127 [4:28] and 400 [13:12]) is rather laboured, but it does (I have to admit) impart a strong sense of moment.

The slow movement works best with this approach. It is most affectionately moulded, with a wide ranging dynamic and some very responsive playing. With plenty of room for phrases to speak, the instrumental dialogue can be well and truly savoured: and the result is heart-warming. I especially like the way (twice, in the second half of Bars 10 [0:44] and 77 [5:30]) Alsop makes the phrase which Brahms merely marks diminuendo into a delicate echo of the previous bar - with most touching effect.

Not surprisingly, the rubato and stringendi which Brahms actually prescribes in the finale’s slow introduction are very well controlled, with a strong sense of emerging drama. When the allegro finally materialises (with the celebrated Ninth Symphony ‘sound-alike’ theme) Alsop’s almost lethargic tempo is most certainly non troppo, and definitely not con brio - at least not until it suddenly quickens! Surely the animato here (Bar 94 [5:56]) is applied to 1st violins only, implying a style of attack rather than a tempo change? Inevitably, the brakes are applied suddenly at the ‘double-bar’ (of course there is no double-bar, but this - Bar 185 [8:46] - is where it could/would have been), which Brahms marks largamente in violins and flutes only. Finally, but typically, the closing statement of the chorale (Bar 407 [16:09]) is declaimed at a markedly steady pace - an old-time habit I thought we’d said goodbye to! These fluctuations can all be justified, in that there is musical evidence for them all, but I do find Alsop’s approach a shade too imposed.

There are a few instances of tempi quickening or slowing for less obvious reasons, and I do wonder whether this results from the editing together of different takes. In the ‘first time’ bars at the tail end of the first movement’s exposition, horns and winds hurry away into the exposition repeat. I may be wrong, but this sounds more inadvertent than strategic! (Forgive the double negative, but I confess that - if it is intentional - it isn’t unexciting!)

As a general rule - though it’s not easy to generalise on such things - tempi are fractionally on the slow side of average. However, the wonderful (but I always think flawed) Tragic Overture is dangerously steady here, most noticeably where Brahms allows the temperature of the argument to fall dangerously low - at the end of both exposition and recapitulation, and (even more noticeably) in the central molto più moderato section. There are places - for example, the dry double counterpoint at Bar 230 [7:13] - where it makes best sense to keep going, however beautifully your orchestra can play for you!

I’ve questioned one or two of Alsop’s interpretive decisions, and you can judge for yourself the extent to which (if at all) these ‘matter’. There are a few other trifling disappointments I’d like to note. Again, only you will know whether these are likely to affect your enjoyment.

The timpani quavers are ever so loud in the opening bars. I used to think this the way to do it when I were a lad, but the drum beat is - indisputably! - merely doubling the double basses, who alone are marked pesante. And when Brahms brings back the same music in the dominant, at Bar 25 [1:47], there’s only a trill (not repeating notes) in the timpani. Not half as exciting, you might argue, but proof that it’s the basses (not the timpani) that need to carry the weight of the orchestra. Alternatively, why not bring out the timpani at Bar 292 of the finale [12:37] where, with almost identical scoring and dynamics to the Symphony’s opening, it could be argued that Brahms is doing some long-distance recollecting or integrating of ideas? But here, Alsop’s timpani are difficult to hear at all!

The violas are rather backwardly balanced between left-and-right strings. I presume this to be a side effect of using (for best ambient effect?) as few microphones as possible. There are one or two places where this requires the listener to compensate. The recapitulated sumptuous second subject melody in the Tragic Overture at Bar 300 [10:11] is no match for the massed violins’ quantity of tone on the same idea in exposition, however lovely the violas’ tone. And those three dramatically pointed quavers in the Symphony’s first movement - at Bars 157 [5:12] and 430 [13:58], where Brahms gets the dynamic ball rolling once again - lack the necessary vocal authority.

The violin solo in the slow movement’s closing bars is projected with an almost concerto-like quantity of tone. And yet Brahms prescribes no dynamic! Indefensibly, the rising semiquavers and sextuplets which accompany the solo horn almost drown the horn: and, when the violin doubles the solo clarinet in parallel octaves (Bar 109 [7:41]) the clarinet can barely be heard!

Of course it takes a lot of pennies to make a pound, and a lot of trifling disappointments to negate a strong recommendation. I’ve detailed a few probable minus points, but not nearly enough to prevent this disc from receiving my heartiest endorsement!

There’s a rather nice outer card cover (with a curiously over-lit photograph of the conductor) to make this Naxos stand out from the others on your shelves. But inside, there’s the usual bog-standard Naxos house style with tedious coloured Times font and down-market artwork. How long before Naxos revamp their presentation to match the calibre of some of the artists they’re recording?

We look forward to the next instalment of this most promising cycle. Alsop has just finished recording the Brahms choral works with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: also (interestingly, but not strictly relevant here!) a Miraculous Mandarin. Since Christmas, concert-goers in Denver will have seen her conduct all four of the Brahms symphonies, and the overtures. And The Hague, London, New York, Baltimore, Dallas and Tokyo will all be witnessing her Brahms performances in coming months.
Lucky them, I say!

Peter J Lawson

 

see reviews By Patrick Waller, Paul Shoemaker, and Colin Clarke



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