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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98 (1885) [41.48]
Hungarian Dances Nos. 2, 4-9 (1868) (arr. by Peter Breiner) [22.51]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Blackheath Concert Hall, London, 21-22 March 2005 (Symphony); Colosseum, Town Hall, Watford, 22-23 April 2006.
NAXOS 8.570233 [64:39]

This is the first recording from the LPO/Alsop Brahms cycle that I’ve so far encountered. And it certainly knocks into a cocked hat the last E minor symphony performance I reviewed, that by Daniel Harding and Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, recently revivified on Virgin. It has far greater tonal saturation, far more clear-sighted architectural goals and none of the personalisation that rendered the Harding a less than successful outing.
That said there will be those who find Alsop rather too measured. Her opening movement is certainly relaxed and it’s not simply a question of timings; it’s more a matter of rhythmic emphases and accents. The LPO play excellently for her if not with quite the bottom-up string power cultivated by German orchestras. But this relative lightness and the relaxed patina of the opening movement certainly reflects the direction of her leadership which is away from thrusting Italianate lyricism and towards a more equilibrium-orientated reading. Her performance then is affectionate, lyrical, with string phrasing that glides rather than prowls. Rather interestingly her outer movements are almost exactly the same length as Knappertsbusch’s legendary 1953 Cologne broadcast – but there resemblance ends. The furore and the seismic breakdowns imparted by Kna are simply not part of Alsop’s schema.
The second movement is attractively chiselled if dynamically emotive – warmly emotive though, lest this gives any impression of relative indifference. There are no rhythmic, balancing or other quirks to distract the ear. It’s a slower reading than Kna’s and entirely differently orientated – I mention him as a kind of talisman of emotional violence and fervour in this score. The scherzo’s accents are kept within bounds – spry and satisfyingly of a piece. The finale is well considered, architecturally convincing but in the last resort not especially moving – it’s perhaps too considered a view. So a conclusion - finely played, well argued, intelligently and sympathetically directed, a little lacking in fire.
The coupling consists of a number of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances arranged by Slovak-born Peter Breiner. All Breiner’s works that I’ve heard have been worth a listen. Here he digs into the material with real gusto. I enjoyed No.4 a lot but elsewhere he does deploy the percussion in a Heavy Brigade kind of way; No.6 takes a bit of a mauling via brass and percussive assaults.
But the main business is the Symphony; a good, intelligent and thoughtful performance at a can’t-argue price bracket. Even so I’d investigate further afield.
Jonathan Woolf

see also reviews by Leslie Wright and Dominy Clements


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