Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Hungarian Dance No. 14 (1880) (arr. string orchestra by Iván Fischer) [2:28]
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a (1873) [17:50]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [46:27]
Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Iván Fischer
rec. Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary, January 2009
I attended two concerts last year by Washington’s National Symphony under Iván Fischer, its current chief conductor. One contained Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and Bartók’s Wooden Prince, the other Mozart’s Prague Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. In each case, the later work was far better than the earlier one, that is, Fischer seemed to have greater affinity for late-Romantic and twentieth-century repertoire than he did for the music of the Classical period. This is perhaps to be expected with a native Hungarian, like Bartók, of whom Fischer is peerless among living conductors. But his Mahler was also wonderfully idiomatic, as I pointed out in my review of the composer’s Fourth Symphony. His Mozart and Beethoven, on the other hand, did not seem like a natural fit, just as I feel about the Brahms symphony under review here.
As with the Mahler Fourth, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the performance per se. The orchestra produces a wonderful sound that is picked up well by the recording. I also have nothing but praise for their performance of the Haydn Variations. Fischer captures the spirit of each variation very well and leads up to the culmination convincingly. Listening to this, my expectations for the symphony were very high indeed.
The first movement begins well enough, even if the timpani’s underpinning could make a greater impact. For comparison I turned to two of my favorites of this oft-recorded work, both by the Cleveland Orchestra, with George Szell (Sony) and Christoph von Dohnanyi (Warner). Indeed, the latter is my touchstone for this work. From this it is clear that I prefer a more classical approach to this symphony, rather than a romantic one. Both Szell, with a swifter tempo, and Dohnanyi are far more commanding in this movement. Fischer tends to pull the tempi about throughout the first and fourth movements, which seems to me to be applied from outside rather than from within. A case in point comes at about 14:44 at the first movement climax (measure 474 before letter P in the Dover score to which I had access) where Fischer over-emphasizes the last two eighth notes by playing them a bit slower than the preceding ones. To me, it does not seem natural and merely calls attention to itself. 

I had no problem with the inner movements. The second movement is warmly played and interpreted without any distortion in the tempi. The oboe solo near the beginning and the horn and violin solos near the end are exquisite, as are the ones for Dohnanyi and Szell. Likewise, the third movement
allegretto is truly grazioso as marked. Again comparisons with Szell and Dohnanyi show all three to be of equal merit here. Fischer then begins the finale with barely a break after the third movement. This is very effective. He did the same in his recording of Mahler’s Fourth (as do some other conductors) which segues well in this symphony. I had never heard it done this way with the Brahms, though.
So, the finale begins well with a real sense of anticipation although I could have used more forceful timpani. The horn solo at the più andante is beautifully played, as are the flute that follows it and the trombones in their chorale. Fischer also chooses a good tempo for the hymn tune at the allegro non troppo, ma con brio with a little more emphasis on the con brio than is sometimes the case. Marin Alsop on her otherwise excellent Naxos recording is just too slow there. When the climax is reached at letter D (measure 94), Fischer is truly animato as indicated in the score because he builds to the faster tempo. However, the second time around with the hymn tune, he lurches ahead at this same point (letter K, measure 220), without having built it as well as he had done earlier. Both Szell and Dohnanyi, but especially the latter, are far more convincing here. Of course, it’s all a matter of interpretation and some may prefer the more extreme tempo variations that Fischer employs. What really rules this performance out for me, however, is the ridiculous race to the finish that Fischer takes starting at the final section marked più allegro. His più is more like molto allegro, again a matter of interpretation. Both Dohnanyi and Szell conclude the symphony with more traditional majesty and power. Even with his speed and somewhat blurred articulation, Fischer still finds time for a luftpause before the last note!
This recording has received some very positive reviews, although not universally, and some may prefer the symphony interpreted this way. I can recommend the disc only for the Haydn Variations, but the symphony is after all the main work. Fischer’s string arrangement of one of the Hungarian Dances neither detracts nor adds much to the proceedings.
Leslie Wright 
Though well played I cannot recommend this performance of Brahms First … see Full Review