Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [45:00]
Symphony No 3 in F major, Op. 90* [37:17]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. 14 May 2009 and *22 October 2009, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. DDD

This set completes the Philharmonia’s Brahms symphony cycle with Christoph von Dohnányi. Symphonies 2 and 4 were issued a little while ago (SIGCD132).

I think I’d describe Dohnányi’s interpretations as “central” – and I don’t mean that disparagingly. This is a traditional, reliable view of Brahms. Both performances are well played by the Philharmonia from whom the conductor obtains a sound that is lean and muscular.

The First Symphony begins with a good, broad account of the introduction but one in which the conductor maintains good momentum and tension. The main allegro is purposeful and there’s welcome energy. One feature is that the horn parts are quite prominent – though not distractingly so. I don’t know whether this is intentional on Dohnányi’s part or whether it’s to do with microphone placement but it’s interesting to hear how important these parts are at times within the texture. Throughout the movement one has a sense of direction and firm control.

The Andante sostenuto is well done and I admired the solo contributions from the leader and from the principal horn and oboe players. The long introduction to the finale is spacious in Dohnányi’s hands and I feel he generates a good atmosphere. The Big Tune unfolds smoothly (from 4:34) and in the main allegro there’s a satisfying degree of impetus and drive. Towards the end of the movement Dohnányi slows a bit more rhetorically for the chorale than I would have expected in what is overall a direct interpretation of the music but he doesn’t apply the brakes anything like as excessively as I’ve heard many a conductor do over the years. The performance elicits vociferous applause from the audience. Readers may be interested to note that this concert was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Gavin Dixon.

In the Third Symphony Dohnányi once again obtains spirited and muscular-sounding playing from the Philharmonia. His reading of the first movement is dynamic in nature though he is willing to relax for the more lyrical passages. Several times I admired the corporate delicacy of the orchestra - for example between 1:25 and 2:04 - and I also appreciated the way in which Dohnányi gives full value to the spacious passage between 7:00 and 8:12 without sacrificing momentum.

The inner movements are both well done – the Andante is persuasively shaped. The opening of the finale has the right degree of vigour – as is frequently the case in both performances, Dohnányi ensures that the performance has backbone. Later, from about 6:40, the extended coda is nicely shaped. As the end of the symphony approaches Brahms’s valedictory harmonic progressions register well yet there is no sentimental autumnal dawdling. The applause at the end is warmly respectful; there’s not the vociferous appreciation that was accorded the First Symphony but I think this simply reflects the more tranquil ending of the Third.

Collectors have a multitude of recordings of both symphonies from which to choose and one might wonder how much we really need yet more Brahms symphony performances. However, this pair of carefully considered and well played performances, captured in good sound, is competitive in a crowded field.

John Quinn

Two carefully considered and well played performances, which are competitive in a crowded field.