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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
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
Rec. Watford Colosseum on January 18th-19th, 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557428 [72’42]
NAXOS SACD 6.110077 [72’42]

A fascinating opportunity to compare formats here, in the first issue of Alsop’s Brahms cycle with the LPO. But first, a word or two about the performances.

The long first movement of the Symphony - with exposition repeat - benefits from Alsop’s decision to let the music breathe - it can take it - and her ability to capture every shifting mood. There is no holding back here on C minor angst, nor on sensitive Innigkeit either, and the LPO seem behind her all the way. A special mention for the principal oboe’s contributions seems totally in place, and not only in the first movement; try around 2’30 in the Andante sostenuto.

The presence of an underlying urgency in the third movement (Un poco allegretto e grazioso) is interpretatively sound. Rather than just being interludic, the struggles of the finale seem an entirely logical outcome, so that the symphony is bound together as one huge, breathing entity. It is here in the finale that Alsop really comes into her own. The horn-calls take us from Watford to the Wälder of Germany, part of a structure that leads inexorably to the work’s lively coda. I wish the tempo for the great ‘chorale’ towards the end were not so pulled back as here, but there is an undeniable impact. By the end, this reviewer was left in no doubts as to Alsop’s Brahmsian credentials.

And the recording? The producer and engineer is Tim Handley, an engineer possessed of a superb ear. Even on CD, the results are impressive.

On careful A/B comparison, though, it is the greater spaciousness and clarity of SACD that wins through every time. The heartbeat-like timpani of the opening movement are not fully focused on CD, and there is a definite improvement when one turns to SACD. The brighter sound of the SACD is not bright in the sense of glaring, more in the sense of an opening out of perspectives and an opening out in a second sense of letting the detail speak. Everything seems clearer, the strings have more body and a gorgeous sound the LPO makes, too!. The climaxes make their points tellingly. Try also the second movement, around 30-35 seconds in, where the double-bass triplet figure is muddy on CD at least in comparison with the SACD. In terms of sheer enjoyment, the SACD makes a huge difference.

The pairing of the Tragic with the Academic Festival overtures is sensible. Alsop’s Tragic presents a disturbed and also disturbing Brahms, but one prepared to let tenderness in along with the angst. The emergence of the chorale ‘from the mists’ at around 9’10 is a moment of pure magic and testimony not only to Alsop’s structural grasp but also to her ear for balance and texture. Later on in the overture, Alsop exhibits much daring in taking the music to the edge, just before it disintegrates. Perhaps around 6’04ff the woodwinds, being more sober than usual, might raise an eyebrow; they did mine. But this is no run-of-the-mill filler. The punchy opening chords have more force on the SACD, though, and that ‘opening out’ of perspective and focus is there again. The bass end is once more tighter.

Finally, the ever-popular Academic Festival Overture. The opening is a real test for clarity, and indeed all does sound tighter on SACD, as against a slightly muddy CD. Upper strings have more focus yet are less wiry on the SACD, and even the cymbal sounds more like a cymbal. Alsop’s ear for detail may be heard in both media around 4’50 - just how often can you actually hear that descending horn line?

Alsop’s reading is hugely enjoyable and a superb way to end the disc. The playing time, it should be noticed, is nice and generous also, at 72’42.

Definitely worth hearing, then. But if you can, do plump for the SACD.

Colin Clarke

see reviews By Patrick Waller, Paul Shoemaker, and Peter Lawson

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