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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 1 in C minor op. 68 [43:08]
Symphony no. 2 in D major op. 73 [46:19]*
Symphony no. 3 in F major op. 90 [33:26]
Symphony no. 4 in E minor op. 98 [38:50]
11 Chorale-Preludes op. 122, arr. Henk de Vlieger [28:18]*
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam/Jaap van Zweden
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland*/Jaap van Zweden
rec. April 1999, MCO Studio Hilversum*, June-August 2002, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99946 [3 CDs: 43:08 + 74:37 + 72:09]


Only very recently I was reviewing another Brilliant set of Brahms symphonies, licensed from EMI and conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. This cycle got a mixed reception when it was new and that’s what it got from me. While looking up my review to make a link, however, I found a 2003 review on the site of this cycle in its original EMI form by Rob Barnett who took a more positive view. The highlight for me was a powerfully tragic fourth, the drawback a pedestrian first – and a dreadfully humdrum Haydn Variations. 2 and 3 were good without matching my favourites, respectively Boult and Klemperer. The whole situation simply reinforced the old truism that no single conductor can manage all four symphonies equally successfully, and I suggested that the cheapest way to make sure you have at least one good performance of each is to buy Janowski – let down by a lack-lustre fourth – and Sawallisch.

Brilliant’s response was to send along this home-grown Dutch set. Believe it or not, here at last is a set that can be recommended all through.

Jaap van Zweden was born in 1960 and at the age of 19 became the youngest concertmaster ever of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He branched into conducting in 1995 and in 2000 became Chief Conductor of the Hague Residentie Orchestra.

More than any conductor in this repertoire since Klemperer, van Zweden brings the wind into democratic equality with the strings. He also goes for an almost organ-like equality of balancing of the wind choir, rather than "soloing-out" the instrument which has the tune. So when, in the slow movement of no. 4, the clarinets take over the famous theme from the horns, we also get to hear a bassoon line that is usually damped down. At several points in the symphonies I noted a familiar passage taking on a new hue with a burbling contrabassoon on the bottom line which is more usually made to mind its manners.

On the debit side, both orchestras are good rather than infallible over intonation and the textures sometimes become clotted, but the performances have sufficient rhythmic life to avoid heaviness. This is an unfailingly warm-hearted, full-blooded Brahmsian sound and seems to represent a genuine attempt at redirecting the modern symphony orchestra towards the sort of sound-mix Brahms himself is likely to have heard. Go to Sawallisch in the third movement of no. 3 and you will hear something totally different; a great conductor apparently improvising the most subtle refinements of phrasing and balance from a great orchestra. But Sawallisch and the LPO didn’t always click like that and even in this movement I find van Zweden’s straightforward songfulness equally rewarding.

There are sign of Historically Informed Practice in the phrasing, especially in the first two symphonies. Van Zweden often concentrates on tight little cells rather than long lines, but structures as deeply rooted as Brahms’s can take care of themselves. Alongside the Historically Informed there are also a few romantic touches. In the coda of no. 1 the chorale theme is broadened out in the old-fashioned way, while the end of no. 2 there is a marked accelerando. Second subject territory relaxes somewhat in the first movement of no. 2. Here I still prefer the seamless way in which Boult unfolds this movement – and the entire symphony – but van Zweden knows how to relax without losing the flow.

While lyrical passages find van Zweden aptly flowing and aptly sprung, he comes into his own with the sheer gut conviction with which he infuses the more dramatic moments. This results in a no. 4 scherzo of daemonic power – I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a performance of it more – followed by a finale of blazing conviction. In spite of my praise for Sawallisch in this symphony, I would not rank van Zweden lower. I was also pleased to find van Zweden countering the modern tendency to stretch out the slow movements. At 10:42 he is closer here to swifter Brahmsians such as Klemperer (10:19) and Boult (10:00) than to the longueurs of Colin Davis (11:34), Sawallisch (12:12) and Janowski (12:37).

This tendency towards flowing slow movements is also present in the third symphony, where his 08:26 is midway between Boult’s 08:35 and Klemperer’s 08:17. Surprisingly, this time Janowski is among the brisker ones (07:57), with Sawallisch (09:17) and Davis (10:02) taking their time.

In the slow movement of no. 1 van Zweden (08:33) is not far from the swifter-flowing Boult (08:27). Klemperer was in a heavy mood when he set down this symphony and comes in at 09:25, siding with the slower Janowski (09:28) and Davis (09:59). Sawallisch is this time among the more mobile (08:59) but he was evidently having an off-day and communicates very little.

Van Zweden seems to have taken particular note of the fact that only one slow movement in all four symphonies is actually marked adagio, albeit "Adagio non troppo": that of no. 2. Here he takes a fairly stately 09:52, close to Sawallisch (09:56) and Janowski (10:02). Davis is less expansive than usual (09:39). Klemperer takes a brisker 09:18, while Boult’s 08:29 even shaves a couple of seconds off Toscanini (08:31). Taking Brahms’s markings at face value, van Zweden would seem to have good reason for siding with the slower performances in this case.

Incidentally, these timings are all from my computer. I realized something was wrong when I saw the slow movement of van Zweden’s no. 1 timed at an incredible 12:03 – and it certainly hadn’t seemed slow. Thereafter I checked the timings of all these six cycles and in every case the printed timings were at variance with reality, often by ten seconds or more, though nothing else matched this discrepancy of over 3 minutes. Just what is the point of printing timings at all if you don’t even try to get them right?

I think this is the first time I have reviewed a Brahms cycle and not adopted a symphony-by-symphony approach. This is a tribute to van Zweden’s consistency – there is no need here to separate the good from the bad. Furthermore, I had the impression at the end that van Zweden had played the entire cycle of symphonies like one gigantic symphony in four movements, an inexorable progress towards the heroic but uncompromising fourth.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Near the beginning of no.1 I was disconcerted by a sudden drop in dynamic level that I listened to several times without deciding whether it was a fussy piece of dynamic shading or an accidental piece of knob-twiddling by the engineers. I rather think the latter. The first note of no. 2 seems too short, as though the recording equipment had been switched on a split second too late. Those who applaud the decision to give the repeat in the first movement of no. 2 will presumably regret the omission of those in nos. 1 and 3. I don’t give up my allegiance to Boult in no. 2 and Klemperer in no. 3, nor would I be without Sawallisch in no. 4. But if you opt for only one Brahms cycle then you can safely buy this, which has no weak link in it.

You will also get a rather unusual extra item. Brahms’s final work was a series of chorale-preludes for organ. This is not an instrument with which he was much associated and they have their problems. As a pianist, he was used to touch-sensitive keyboards and much of the writing seems to cry out for the sort of direct expressiveness which the organ cannot provide. Yet playing them on the piano – as the Italian pianist Mario Delli Ponti frequently did – is not wholly satisfactory either. You get the touch-sensitiveness, but you realize Brahms had sustained sounds in mind. An orchestration may seem the answer. At least some were orchestrated long ago by Erich Leinsdorf. I haven’t heard these but I understand they evoke the colours of the romantic organ. Henk de Vlieger makes no attempt at this, or at the sort of orchestration Brahms himself might have made. Nor does he make a riotous send-up of the music as Schoenberg did in his transcription of the Piano Quintet. He is closer to Rubbra who took the Handel Variations as an opportunity to investigate certain aspects of his own style. "Schmücke dich", for example, gets very intimate treatment. So far nobody who has tried orchestrating Brahms has succeeded in adding a new work to the regular canon and I don’t think de Vlieger will either, but it makes for intriguing listening. Tempi and phrasing are often very different from what would be effective on the organ, but are probably right for the context.

If you’re building a basic collection, this set will leave you needing the Haydn Variations and the two overtures. If still available, there’s a useful 2-CD Boult compilation which gives you all his Brahms except the symphonies – the two serenades, the two overtures, the variations and the celebrated Alto Rhapsody with Dame Janet Baker. Boult’s liking for swift slow movements reached controversial extremes in the serenades, but at least he’s not dull and these two sets will together give you all of Brahms’s orchestral music except the concertos – and the few Hungarian Dances he orchestrated himself – without any duplications.

Christopher Howell


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