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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]

 

That Brahms labored for more than twenty years, both physically and mentally, over his first symphony is well documented. For the younger composer, the shadow of Beethoven was so great that he feared ever being able to add to the canon. Add to his reservations the widely held assertion of Wagner that after the giant from Bonn, there was nothing left to be said via the absolute symphonic form, and that only the tone poem and the music drama were left as vehicles through which to advance the cause of music. That his first symphony was held not only in considerable public and critical esteem helped not only to bolster Brahms’ place in the musical pantheon of his day, but also significantly silenced Wagner for a time as the more conservative composer’s greatest critic and rival.

Marin Alsop has come to attention through her estimable performances of twentieth century American music, ironically more often than not recorded by foreign orchestras. With this recording she quite soundly breaks free from the realm of somewhat specialist repertoire and takes a very rightful place amongst the world’s master conductors. These taut, deep, sonorous and exuberant performances make it perfectly clear that Ms. Alsop has a solid interpretational capacity, an encompassing technical command and a level of baton wielding virtuosity that places her at the very top of the roster of international star conductors. And what a welcome addition she is.

Over the years, interpretations of Brahms’ symphonies have become more and more grand, coated over with layer after layer of sentimental varnish. As a result, the works have lost a good deal of their initial drama and punch, and have been given over to lush romantic sentimentality and nostalgia. Ms. Alsop brings the C minor symphony back to pulsating life with her adroit combination of Ormandy’s voluptuous string tone and Szell’s rhythmic drive and precision. No lugubrious mid-summer thundershower this opening salvo! Rather we are treated to a forceful march, which sets up the drama of the radiant and rollicking sound world to come. Alsop takes us for a thrilling ride throughout the opening movement with ample forward drive coupled with subtle changes in shades of color.

Alsop leads us from the dark storm into the splendid repose of the second movement without ever bowing to the temptation to overplay Brahms’ considerable gift for soaring melody. The compact but lovely third movement is expertly paced, making an apt prelude for the finale with its beautiful horn solo, splendidly executed here along with its equally lovely answer from the principle flute. By the time the chorale comes in at mid-point, Ms. Alsop has set up a finely wrought tempo, a pace which she most elegantly and breathtakingly increases until we are swept off by the rush and grandeur of the symphony’s closing gestures.

The program is rounded out by two famous overtures, the Tragic in which Ms. Alsop captures both harsh drama and the reflective repose; and the Academic Festival, a considerably more tuneful and light-hearted work, composed as a thank you gesture to the University of Breslau who awarded Brahms an honorary doctorate in 1879.

The London Philharmonic play with abandon throughout this entire disc, quite obviously in sympathy with their leader. Program notes are excellent and informative, and sound quality is of a very high order. With this opening release, we can only sit back and wait with tremendous anticipation for the remaining three symphonies to be released. This is a recording that can be set alongside Klemperer and Karajan and hold pride of place. A most welcome addition to the catalog, this. Recommended without a moment’s hesitation.

Kevin Sutton

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

see also Kevin Sutton's review of Symphony No 2



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