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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Symphony #1 in c, Op 68 (1876) [47.52]
Tragic Overture, Op 81 (1881) [14.04]
Academic Festival Overture, Op 80 (1880) [10.36]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at Watford Colisseum, Watford, UK, 19 January 2004
Notes in English and Deutsch.
5.0 48 kHz 24 Bit recording, 5.1 AC-3 Dolby Digital, 5.1 dts surround sound
DVD-Audio, playable on all DVD players.

NAXOS 5.110077 [72.32]
5.0 Surround Sound, 2.0 Stereo, 2.0 CD tracks, mastered in DSD.
Hybrid SACD also playable on all CD players.

NAXOS 6.110077 [72.42]
2.0 Stereo
Standard CD
NAXOS 8.557428 [72.38]

Comparison Recordings of the Symphony #1:
Charles Munch, Boston SO [ADD] RCA/BMG 7812-2-RV
Maurice Abravanel, Utah SO Silverline [ADD] DVD-Audio 288237-9
Eugen Jochum, LPO EMI LP SLS 5093 [SQ Quadrophonic disk]
Comparison Recordings of the Academic Festival Overture

Eugen Jochum, LPO EMI LP SLS 5093 [SQ Quadrophonic disk]
Stokowski, New Philh. Orch. RCA [ADD Dolby Surround CD] 09026-62514-2
Antal Dorati, Minneapolis SO Mercury [mono] LP
Comparison Recordings of the Tragic Overture.
Charles Munch, Boston SO [ADD] RCA/BMG 09026-60682-2
Eugen Jochum, LPO EMI LP SLS 5093 [SQ Quadrophonic disk]

The evolution of the Brahms First Symphony can be traced back to the time of Handel. Some authorities are convinced Handel wrote God Save the King, others that it was by John Bull, others say it was an old folk-song utilised by both composers in their works. However it arose, the emergence of an English National hymn made the Emperor of Austria jealous so Franz Joseph Haydn wrote one for him, putting it in the second movement of a string quartet. Mozart in his "Jupiter" Symphony (so named by the English impresario Salomon and eagerly seconded by Mozartís surviving family) used an old Gregorian church tune (strikingly similar to the B.A.C.H. motif, but thatís another story) to write a fugal testament in the last movement, some say as a special favour to the Emperor, or as a memorial to his father Leopold. In the Beethoven Sixth Symphony the fifth and final movement is a hymn of thanksgiving, and the tune in the last movement of Beethovenís Ninth Symphony is now the anthem of the European Union.

Felix Mendelssohnís Second Symphony was a choral symphony written in a clumsy attempt to comment on Beethoven. It was for his third numbered symphony (actually his twelfth), the "Scottish," that Mendelssohn found a Big Tune worthy of the form, a tune that sings in the last movement. In his Fifth Symphony, Mendelssohn wrote his own "Jupiter" Symphony with a fugal finale on a hymn tune.

Johannes Brahms was heard to complain about what a difficult act all this was to follow, but had early on considered it his duty to continue this progression. Four times he set out to write something in the symphonic form ó Opp. 11, 15, 16, and 34 ó and four times he chickened out, thinned out the music and scored it for reduced ensemble. For "Symphony #1" Opus 68 he settled on the Mendelssohnian model and the rest is history. The Big Tune from the last movement was not officially a hymn, but it was adopted by the rival high school in my home town as their alma mater, and must have suffered this fate in many other instances as well.*

(Brahms wrote his own "Jupiter" as his Fourth Symphony, using as the last movement not a fugue but a passacaglia on a similar chromatic theme borrowed almost intact from the ciaccona in the Bach 150th cantata. Why he avoided the fugue form in this instance is not clear since he wrote many very fine fugues throughout his career. It is possible that he was not afraid of being compared to Bach or Beethoven, but shrank from a comparison to Mozart. At any rate, as with Mozart, this was a good place to quit and no fifth symphony ever appeared.)

Of the First Symphony, Alsopís is a poised, perfectly balanced performance. Tempi are from moment to moment right on the button which allows the magnificent long dramatic phrases to build with deliberate power and shattering resolution. In the slow movement, the long lyric phrases sing without effort. Because of the exceptional clarity of the high resolution versions of this recording, details can be easily heard without requiring excessive accenting, as weíve been used to in older recordings. Brahmsí huge orchestra does not merge into a bathtub full of sound, but remains clearly delineated from the lowest strings to the highest flute as it doubles the strings. Instrumental solos are uniformly superb. I think that the child Brahms is represented in the symphonies by the orchestral flute, and many performances of these symphonies have failed because of weak, unmotivated flute solos; here the flute is a confident bird, but a fragile bird nonetheless. Brahms may have been an agnostic, but God is in the horns, and they shine here with particular lustre.

As an adult Schumann had two imaginary comrades and some of his music consists of dialogues between these two sides of his personality. This may have rubbed off a little on Brahms, because he wrote the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture at the same time, expressing complementary sides of his nature. The Tragic Overture is alternately spooky, gloomy, raging and depressed. Those who would dispute the Mendelssohn-Brahms connection that I made above might just listen to the trumpet-calls in the Tragic Overture. There are whole passages that could have come straight out of the Fingalís Cave Overture. Mendelssohn in Fingalís Cave was expressing awe at the overwhelming mystery and power of nature; how literally does Brahms intends us to take these embedded quotations from Mendelssohnís work?** The Academic Festival Overture is relaxed, expressing a sense of fun and high humour. Brahms never went to university, and there may be more than a little regretful fantasy in this bit of college high-jinx.

Even though the Silverline DVD-Audio is in 96/24 instead of 48/24, the sound is less transparent, the strings sounding shrill, but overall very effective. Abravanelís performance is very good, the orchestra play with precision and punch, the soloists are excellent, but overall the performance is not quite so tense nor so dramatic as Alsopís. Abravanel does not observe the first movement exposition repeat, but Alsop does; I can take it or leave it, although some people feel theyíre not getting their full moneyís worth unless all repeats are observed.

The 1977 Jochum set with the same orchestra may exist in the vaults as a four channel master and may some day appear as an EMI DVD-Audio or SACD. The LPO play a little more incisively for Jochum; this may be mostly because there was more money in the budget for rehearsals, retakes and editing. Jochumís performance is a classic German approach, and, yes, he takes the first movement exposition repeat; some will think he starts out too slow and too deliberate, but he generates tremendous excitement at the finish. These performances have been issued on CD, but I have not heard them in that format.

My favourite recording of the Academic Festival Overture for 50 years has been the Dorati version with the Minneapolis SO, for the tremendous energy, excitement, and percussive impact. Unfortunately, neither I nor the strident monophonic sound are anywhere near so attractive now as they were back then. Stokowskiís 1974 version, originally available on a four channel CD-4 disk, is very exciting and wide-range, but unfortunately a little shy on impact, although turning up the bass control does help; hopefully we will see it on an RCA surround sound SACD soon.

Alsopís Academic Festival Overture is really best of all, as close to a perfect performance as will ever occur although in the finale on the DVD-Audio tracks the timpani accents are little tame for my taste. Turning up the bass control ó if you can do that ó helps. The Hybrid SACD, dts, and CD tracks seem a little better, although the dts tracks on this DVD-Audio disk are disappointing, not much better than the Dolby Surround or CD tracks. Iím unable to detect any audible difference between the CD tracks on the CD-only release and the CD tracks on the hybrid SACD release. In contrast to some earlier Naxos releases the bass frequencies are not attenuated on this CD release. The screen display on the DVD-Audio disk is a pleasing soft shifting red-yellow-white pattern.

The surround sound on this release is very satisfactory, especially on the high resolution formats. During quieter passages it is strongly front-focused, but when the volume of the orchestra increases, the reverberant sound expands to fill the space. The Dolby Surround on the Stokowski release is all but undetectable, certainly no better than the usual fake surround one gets from playing 2.0 channel disks through the surround decoder, which is how I almost always listen to two channel CDs. Pretty much the same with the Jochum disks; although I am no longer set up to play SQ disks, my recollection is that this is a strongly front-centred surround sound balance with rear channel ambient information.

If forced at gun-point to say something disparaging about this performance, I could comment that Brahms was an artistically violent man. Charles Munch achieves violent power in razor sharp peak dramatic accents. But Marin Alsop betters him in the lyrical passages; at times with her the music blooms, sighs, sings. Their tempi are all but identical, phrase by phrase. So who is better? I wouldnít do without both. There are several places where the LPO string attacks are not exactly together, not exactly on the beat. I expect absolute perfection from English orchestras; no forgiveness.

The box notes suggest signing on to for a recorded interview with Marin Alsop, however I couldnít get this link to work.

*My high school used new words set to something resembling "Nearer my God to thee."

**In the fourth movement development section listen for echoes of Mendelssohnís Fifth Symphony.

Paul Shoemaker

see reviews By Patrick Waller, Colin Clarke and Peter Lawson


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