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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor op. 68 [44:27]
Variations on a Theme of Haydn op. 56a [16:47]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Marek Janowski
rec. live, March 2007, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh

Marek Janowski recorded a Brahms cycle in the mid-1980s during his period with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I found this, on its recent reissue, generally impressive with the First one of the highlights but with a disappointing Fourth. It is not stated whether the present issue heralds a new complete cycle.
I started by listening again to the Liverpool versions of these two works and it was a pleasure to renew acquaintance with such satisfying performances. In the “Haydn”, each variation is given at a well-chosen tempo with scrupulous attention to the dynamics and phrasing in the score and with warm but never heavy sonorities. At the same time there is a freshness which prevents it from being merely an object lesson in non-interventionist interpretation.
The symphony, too, received one of the few really recommendable performances I know, with the first movement repeat, precious few quirks and a fairly mobile slow movement.
Twenty years on in Pittsburgh I am impressed above all by Janowski’s consistency. The variations are once again beautifully turned and the freshness has not been lost. The new recording – which I heard as a normal CD – picks up just that little extra detail. When the double bassoon is playing, for example, it really penetrates the texture. Perhaps on account of this the principal woodwind players come across with a touch more personality in Pittsburgh. Janowski, for his part, is a tad swifter in variations 4, 6 and 7. I thought no.4 a shade pushed but no.6 is now wonderfully exuberant, without a trace of the pompousness it sometimes has. As for no.7, it undoubtedly matches Brahms’s “grazioso” marking even more than before. My trouble is that I grew up with Furtwängler and I still find it hard to forego his long-drawn, romantic treatment of this particular variation. Variation 8 is now not just hushed but positively eerie – most impressive. In spite of the “live” provenance of the new recording the finale closes with more elation in Liverpool. I think this just adds up to a very slight preference for the new version but it’s a close-run thing.
In the symphony we also note that the Pittsburgh strings have greater weight than those of Liverpool. Less welcome is a tendency for the horns to blare. Janowski is now fractionally faster in the first two movements, a tad slower in the last two. The new performance is a little more excitable than the older one, perhaps because it’s live. This, together with the point I made about the horns, sometimes translates into a sense of inflexibility I didn’t notice in Liverpool. I don’t want to make too much of this since it not likely to worry anyone not making comparisons.
Janowski makes few interpretative “points” but it’s fascinating to find those few reproduced identically – the pacing of the last movement coda, for instance. The one movement where I feel he does improve on his former self is the third. It was already very fine but now, with just that fraction more space, every detail of the score is captured yet set in its proper perspective. The outer parts of this movement have scoring of a pointillist delicacy unlike any other orchestral music by Brahms and I’ve never heard them better done.
I must say I noticed this was a live recording only when I started to write the header details above. I don’t know if listening on headphones might reveal some muffled coughs but I noticed nothing on loudspeakers – no applause either and full resonance at the end of both works.
It might seem a paradox to say that these are among the most recommendable versions available of both works and yet at the same time say the disc hardly needed making. The earlier versions were also among the most recommendable versions of both works and the differences are minimal. In view of Janowski’s consistency over the years I therefore wonder just what this new disc actually adds to the store of recorded music on disc. I rather wish Janowski had been employed in Pittsburgh conducting something he hasn’t recorded yet. Still, here it is, and since it has been made I suppose it supersedes the old recording. Especially for SACD collectors, or those who don’t want to buy a 4-CD set and saddle themselves with a lacklustre Fourth Symphony.    
Christopher Howell


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