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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Orchestral Works

CD 1 [46:02]
Symphony no.1 in C minor op.68 (1855-76) [46:02]
CD 2 [58:01]
Symphony no.2 in D op.73 (1877) [44:19]
Tragic Overture op.81 (1880-81) [13:02]
CD 3 [53:12]
Symphony no.3 in F op.90 (1883) [35:36]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn op.56a (1873) [17:16]
CD 4 [51:44]
Symphony no.4 in E minor op.98 (1884-85) [41:37]
Academic Festival Overture op.80 (1880) [09:58]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Marek Janowski
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, no dates but pub. 1984 (disc 1), 1985 (discs 2 & 4), 1986 (disc 3)
SANCTUARY CLASSICS CD RSB 405 [4 CDs: 46:02 + 58:01 + 53:12 + 51:44]
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Marek Janowski has been a well-regarded name in the conducting world for many years. Though born in Poland in 1939 of a Polish father, his mother was German and most of his training, as well as the first part of his career, took place in Germany. He was Music Director of the RLPO for a fairly brief period, from 1983 to 1987. His recordings are quite extensive and include a number of useful first recordings of rare operas from the German area and a complete "Ring" recorded in Dresden. In spite of all this, I must confess I had never encountered his work until now. Furthermore, while many artists bear a strong public image so that, even if you haven’t heard them perform you may have a quite strong idea of what to expect – however wrong that idea may prove – I had no preconceptions about Janowski whatever.

And I must say that the first symphony impressed me mightily. From the outset it was clear that he was obtaining from the orchestra a rich and full sonority, but not a heavy one, so this introduction moved forward grandly and majestically. The Allegro part of the movement is quite swift with a terse dramatic energy. The repeat is observed and only minimal slowing is allowed in the more lyrical moments. The development builds up very powerfully indeed.

The "Andante sostenuto" is not allowed to degenerate into an "adagio" but maintains a real sense of flow, while at the same time the strings are encouraged to sing their melodies with much passion. At 09:21 Janowski sides more with the swifter performances on disc (Toscanini 08:19, Boult 08:24, Klemperer 09:25) than those which find prophetic shades of Mahlerian angst in it (Colin Davis 09:55, Maag 10:14, Scherchen 10:33, Furtwängler 10:35 in Berlin 1952 though only 09:40 in Turin the same year). The Intermezzo third movement is truly "grazioso", an effect achieved by a well-chosen tempo but above all by the extreme clarity and naturalness with which Brahms’s often quite complicated countermelodies are presented. The finale begins again with an introduction that is weighty but forward-moving. The famous theme of the Allegro is a little on the slow side but when Brahms indicates "animato" Janowski makes quite a big change and the larger part of the movement has tremendous surge, culminating in a coda which takes Brahms at his word, without any unmarked broadening for the return of the chorale theme. This is one of the most satisfying performances I have heard for a long time.

The Second Symphony struck me at the beginning as a little slow but I appreciated the clarity of phrasing in the strings’ bare octave passages. Even more, I appreciated the way in which the second subject emerged quite naturally out of the preceding music, and it actually sounds quite free-flowing. Our ears have evidently become only too used to hearing this music with two alternating tempi. The repeat is played and also here the development builds up powerfully. The "Adagio non troppo" also struck me as a little on the slow side, but again by careful handling of detail Janowski keeps it flowing. His slowish tempo for the Intermezzo may be one of the few on disc which takes into account the "quasi andantino" that Brahms added in brackets after his main marking "Allegretto grazioso". I found its relaxed charm quite delightful. The finale seemed a little underpowered at first but it soon gets going. Perhaps surprisingly, this time Janowski allows the traditional accelerando towards the end though not as excessively as some. A very good performance just slightly lacking the sense that the whole symphony is unfolded in a single paragraph. In this, Boult is supreme, but the Second is perhaps the only symphony in his late cycle which matches the best of his earlier performances.

This disc is concluded with a fiery and gripping "Tragic Overture". I have a particular admiration for Ančerl’s recording of this, which is unusually slow but remarkably lean and intense. Janowski matches most others that I know.

The Third Symphony is notable for its interpretative problems, to the extent that even Toscanini was rather afraid of it and his "official" recording was laboured and cautious – some live versions tell a different tale. Janowski seems untroubled by it. He adopts a swiftish tempo for the first movement which gives a fine surge to the dramatic parts while still allowing the lyrical melodies to sing. Also here, the repeat is observed. The "Andante" has an ideal flow, as does the gently melancholic Intermezzo. The finale is a little slower than some but with plenty of bite and the gradual relaxation towards the end is achieved with great naturalness. This ranks with the achievement of the First Symphony.

The Haydn Variations which complete the disc do not have perhaps the same electricity but it is a well-considered reading all the same. This is probably the trickiest of Brahms’s orchestral works to play and there are a few hints – in chording and ensemble – that the RLPO is a provincial orchestra, albeit a very good one.

So with superb performances of the 1st and 3rd Symphonies and a very good one of no. 2 I settled down to enjoy the crowning of the cycle.

The first movement of the 4th is closer to the achievement of the 2nd than to that of the other two. It isn’t exactly slow but it seems to hang fire here and there and there are one or two pieces of point-making of the kind Janowski avoids elsewhere. I did appreciate his steadiness in the coda – here Klemperer unexpectedly makes a big accelerando while Mengelberg, of all people, held steady.

But the problem here is the "Andante moderato". I just can’t understand how a conductor who has chosen such mobile, flowing tempi for the other slow movements of the cycle, can suddenly adopt such a desperately plodding tempo here. At 12:33 this is among the slowest I know – compare Boult 09:56 or Klemperer 10:19. Even Sir Colin Davis, who likes his slow movements slow (in Brahms), takes 11:31. Mengelberg, by virtue of extremely beautiful playing, managed to get away with 11:40. But it’s not just a matter of tempo. Celidibache, in Milan in 1959, was about the same as Janowski: 12:37 (I daresay he drew it out even more in later years). Yet in spite of an orchestra which in matters of tuning (the bare octaves at the beginning!) is more patently "provincial" than the RLPO he is able to make the music float on air instead of sit down flat on those plodding six beats in a bar. The ear is drawn onwards. Maybe Janowski had similar intentions, but couldn’t he hear at the playback that it just wasn’t coming off?

A lively, unexceptional Scherzo is followed by an account of the great passacaglia finale that signally fails to hold together. Almost from the first it seems that Janowski is taking a different tempo for each variation. Perhaps Furtwängler could have got away with this and more. Janowski can’t and again, one wonders why this performance is so short on precisely those virtues which made his accounts of the other Symphonies so fine. The "Academic Festival Overture" begins with some muddy textures and alternates moments of almost aggressive liveliness with others where the music sags. It looks as though these particular sessions caught the conductor on an off-day.

The booklet notes – by Michael Kennedy for no.1, anonymous for the others – mention that Eduard Hanslick found the Third Symphony "artistically the most perfect" of Brahms’s Symphonies thus far, and did not change his mind when the Fourth appeared. Any listener who depends only on Janowski for his knowledge of these works is likely to agree.

Obviously, this puts me in a quandary. It would be sad indeed if such exceptionally fine performances of nos. 1 and 3 should go unheard. But on the other hand, if you get Boult or Klemperer or Colin Davis – just to mention three cycles I happened to have reviewed for this site – you will not be left in any doubt that no. 4 is the crowning glory of the cycle. It’s a pity the discs are not made available separately. As it is, a strong recommendation to anyone who has a fine 4th already but less satisfactory versions (or none) of the others, or who is prepared to buy a good 4th at the same time.

Incidentally, it’s rare to have this music spread over four discs these days, however low the cost per disc.

Christopher Howell


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