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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 1 in C minor Op.68 (1876) [47:40]
((i) Un poco sostenuto Ė Allegro [16:15]; (ii) Andante sostenuto [9:19]; (iii) Un poco allegretto e grazioso [4:48]; (iv) Adagio Ė Allegro non troppo ma con brio [17:18])
Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880) [14:01]
Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 (1880) [10:38]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded Watford Colosseum in January 2004 DDD
NAXOS 8.557428 [72:42]

This is the first release in a complete series of Brahms symphonies to be conducted by Marin Alsop. So far, her recordings seem to have mostly concentrated on music from her native America (for example, the excellent Barber series for Naxos) but here she tackles the mainstream central European tradition, and there is an awful lot of competition.

I can hear some people yawning already and others saying that we donít need more recordings of Brahms symphonies. Well, thereís no doubt that this is going to have to be "top-notch" to be competitive. Even the usual price advantage with Naxos is missing Ė Brahms from the greats of the past is available cheaply (as two or three disc sets) and Bernard Haitinkís highly recommendable series for LSO Live is about to be completed with individual discs that cost the same.

Alsopís approach to the first symphony is lyrical and passionate rather than stoic or grand. The effect is to place the work as a closer sibling of the 2nd symphony and perhaps to lessen the idea that it is Beethovenís 10th. I think it works well and liked it a lot. She is saying something new (at least to me) about the music which is perfectly valid and takes no liberties with the score. Alsop plays the exposition repeat in the first movement and her control of transitions and structures here is excellent ... and indeed throughout. The E major slow movement is both sunny and passionate with beautiful woodwinds and a characterful violin solo. Alsop plays it as slowly as is compatible with the marked andante and this is a wonderful rendition. Plenty of character is also evident in the intermezzo-like third movement but it is in the finale that biggest challenges lie. The slow introduction is notable for wide dynamic contrasts Ė very soft pizzicatos and loud passionate flutes which echo the horn call (a striking effect which is marked in the score but often underplayed). The tempo for the big tune is on the slow side but Alsop justifies it well. At the very end she ratchets up the tension to achieve a satisfying conclusion.

Both overtures are also very well played and I particularly enjoyed the Academic Festival Overture, in which there is an ever-present sense of fun. Although one can easily re-programme the order, placing these before the symphony would have seemed more logical - who wants to listen to an overture a few seconds after the end of Brahmsís 1st?

The playing of the London Philharmonic on this disc is first-rate and they get recorded sound to match. Balance is nigh on perfect and perspectives natural, this is in the demonstration bracket. So, all round, the disc is a substantial success, my only qualification being that it is not for those who want a "massive" approach to this symphony. But how does it rate with the competition?

There have been many great recordings of Brahms symphonies and those who love this music will probably want to hear (or already have) readings by the likes of Toscanini, Klemperer and Walter from the 1950s or, more recently, Sanderling, Boult, Karajan and Wand. I havenít yet made any comparisons with such versions because, to my mind, the real competition is from Bernard Haitinkís cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra. His 1st was recorded at the Barbican in May 2003 (LSO Live 0045). Two London orchestras, one recorded live the other not. Bernard Haitink, a doyen conductor on his third recording versus Marin Alsop, the newcomer. Some may have allegiances to either orchestra or conductor which are akin to supporting a football team, or may prefer or dislike live recordings but, if itís all down to interpretation, which do you go for? My view is that Alsop is fresher and says something about the work that will both interest those who know it well and yet still be a good starting point for those who donít. I should add that Haitink is also excellent (though surprisingly his approach here sometimes reminded me of Klemperer) but his reading is quite different Ė very much the stoic and grand. This has little to do with tempi - overall movement timings are almost identical when Haitinkís omission of the 1st movement repeat is taken into account (and ignoring the erroneous timing for that movement given in the LSO Live booklet).

I would also favour Alsopís recorded sound over Haitink (in part, probably a question of venue) and, whereas both play the Tragic Overture, she adds a second work - the Academic Festival Overture. This seems to be a less common coupling for the symphonies but I canít understand why Ė itís delightful. Endeavouring to adopt the position of unbiased referee (and preparing to be shot down by pundits with slow motion replays), Iíd say it is 1-0 to Alsop at the moment but weíre only midway through the first half. We already know that Haitink has a couple of good goal attempts up his sleeve with versions of the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies that are both very fine and have excellent couplings (the Double Concerto and Second Serenade respectively). So, itís not over yet but Marin Alsopís Brahms series has got off to an excellent start. I shall await the next instalment will great anticipation. Newcomers to the work will do well to start here, old hands are advised to avoid any temptation to yawn and get listening Ė this is indeed "top-notch".

Patrick C Waller

see reviews By Paul Shoemaker, Colin Clarke and Peter Lawson

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