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Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Orchestral Works

Symphony No. 1 op. 68 in C Minor (1876);
Symphony No. 2 op. 73 in D (1877);
Symphony No. 3 op. 90 in F (1883);
Symphony No. 4 op. 98 in E Minor (1885);
Academic Festival Overture op. 80 (1879);
Tragic Overture op. 81 (1880);
Variations on a Theme by Haydn op. 56a (1873);
Piano Concerto No. 1 op. 15 in D Minor (1859);
Piano Concerto No. 2 op. 83 in B-Flat (1881);
Violin Concerto op. 77 in D (1879).
Gerhard Oppitz (piano), Kyoko Takezawa (violin).
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
No recording dates and venues given. Published 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1998, 2004.
BMG CLASSICS 82876 60388 2 [5 CDs: 71:22 + 75:10 + 66:08 + 75:22 + 68:38]
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For many years I have greatly admired the conducting of Colin Davis, both live and on records. A mental retrospect of his work brings to mind his Berlioz cycle, his Haydn symphonies, his Sibelius, his Mozart operas, his Britten, his Verdi and Puccini. It is a long list. So it was with great anticipation that I started listening to this five-disc box including most of Brahms’s orchestral music. Actually the only compositions missing are the two early serenades and his very last orchestral offering, the Double Concerto. This should, in other words, be an ideal starter for someone who has just found his/her way to Brahms and wants to investigate further. Aimez-vous Brahms? wrote Françoise Sagan almost half a century ago, and who doesn’t?

I am sorry to say that these versions left me more or less unmoved. And the reasons are not easy to analyze. My first reaction was: "It’s my fault. I’m not in the right mood. This is music that I normally get involved in after just a few bars." So I turned it off, put on some unknown guitar music - and was enthralled. I went back to the box a couple of days later when I felt in Brahmsian mood, but again had the feeling of a certain distance to the music. And so it proved to be whenever I returned to Davis’s Brahms during a period of several weeks. I started to dip into old favourite recordings, some of them from a very distant past, and most of them had in abundance what Sir Colin lacked: presence. It has nothing to do with bad music making. My God! We have here one of the great symphony orchestras of the world, steeped in the central Austro-German tradition. We have one of the foremost and most versatile conductors of practically the whole post-war era. Listening critically we have no reason to question tempos, Davis obeys Brahms’s dynamics, the playing is first-class, the sound is good.

I also get the feeling that Davis doesn’t differentiate the characters of the works. The First Symphony, nicknamed by some commentators "Beethoven’s Tenth", should be, well, Titanic. The second, his "Pastoral Symphony", should smile. The third, his "Eroica", should be heroic. The fourth, his most personal creation, should be dark, brooding. And of course they are – all of this is in the written music and played by professionals they become Titanic etc, but in this case only on the surface. Giulini in his LAPO recording comes closer to the heart of the First Symphony. Karajan, in his first Brahms cycle from the early 1960s, smiles more beguilingly in the Second (however unlikely that sounds) and is more overtly heroic in the third. The recently deceased Carlos Kleiber catches all the dark colours in his legendary recording of the Fourth, just reissued as a memorial disc. All of these are on DG. When delving even deeper into my LP collection I found an early 1960s recording of the Fourth with this same Munich orchestra conducted by octogenarian Carl Schuricht for the defunct Concert Hall label. It is severely worn and in mono only but it has all the required darkness and it is so finely structured, so architectonically surefooted. If ever it appears again, and Carl Schuricht has obviously been rediscovered lately, I recommend it wholeheartedly. Well, it seems I am reviewing the wrong discs. Returning to Sir Colin I can say that without the knowledge of other recordings this compilation can probably be a valid and inexpensive introduction to Brahms’s fascinating symphonic world. There may not be any deep revelations but on the other hand neither is there any of the quirkiness you can find in some other, "personal" interpretations.

The concertos are more or less in the same league – they are efficient but not very enlightening. The pianist, Gerhard Oppitz, a pupil of Wilhelm Kempff, is widely regarded as one of the foremost German pianists of his generation. However on this evidence he doesn’t seem to be on a par with some of his contemporaries. He has a formidable technique which is required in these works. With him the First Concerto is powerful and exuberant, which it should be, but it is also a little short on poetry an indispensable quality in the B-flat concerto. Stephen Kovacevich recorded both these concertos in the late 1970s for Philips, actually with Colin Davis and the LSO, and these recordings are certainly superior to Oppitz’s.

The Violin Concerto definitely belongs to the greats, challenged only by Beethoven’s – in the same key. It requires a formidable soloist. I was lucky enough to hear Nathan Milstein, at the age of 79, giving a riveting performance of this concerto at the Barbican, and this is still the benchmark for me. His early LP recording, with Steinberg on Columbia, is a good try. He re-recorded it for DG in the 1970s, but that live performance still lingers in my memory as the closest approach to perfection. I hadn’t heard Kyoko Takezawa before but a visit to her official website told me that she is much in demand and she has recorded great parts of the standard repertoire for the BMG label with conductors like Slatkin and Tilson Thomas. Among her other recordings is the Elgar concerto with Colin Davis. She is no mean contender, and makes a good stab at this, the least soloistic of concertos. However as recorded here her tone is decidedly on the thin side and lacks the necessary glow. It could be her placing vis-a-vis the microphones. Technically her playing is flawless.

Maybe I am too affected by those old ’uns, but in the main Colin Davis and his very capable soloists give a very professional and adequate rendering of these works but not ones that I would return to very often.

Sir Colin also includes the two overtures and the so-called Haydn Variations. No complaints here. He catches the festive feeling in the Academic Festival Overture. The Tragic Overture combines well with the Fourth Symphony, for which it can be regarded as a preliminary study. The much earlier Variations belong to the best versions I can recall hearing.

In order to squeeze all this music onto five well-filled discs, a couple of works have been split between discs: Symphony No. 2 and the Violin Concerto. It can be a bit annoying when you want to listen to the complete works but on the other hand you do save a few pounds.

If you want inexpensive and very good versions of just the four symphonies I would recommend the aforementioned early Karajan set (DG) or Kurt Sanderling’s Dresden recordings from the early 1970s (BMG). Hopefully they are still available. But if, on the other hand, you want a very economical and comprehensive Brahms box, this is a good alternative. I may have sounded less than enthusiastic, but in spite of some reservations there is much here to admire.

Göran Forsling

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