Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1 [43:08]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op.68 (1876) [43:08]
CD 2 [46:04]
Symphony No. 2 in D Op.73* (1877) [46:04]
CD 3 [72:09]
Symphony No. 3 in F Op.90 (1883) [33:14]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor Op.98 (1885) [38:53]
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland*/Jaap van Zweden
rec. June – August 2002, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam; April 1999, MCO Studio Hilversum*. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94074 [3 CDs: 43:08 + 46:04 + 72:09]
Brilliant Classics have here produced a further iteration of a mainstay of its catalogue. This set of Brahms’ symphonies first surfaced in 2003 when it was given a mixed reception by my MusicWeb International reviewer colleague Michael Cookson. It was more enthusiastically received by Christopher Howell on its second appearance in 2007. These issues included the 11 Choral Preludes, Op.122, which are not included here. The present third incarnation would suggest that the cycle has sustained its reputation as an extraordinarily good bargain edition.
I find Jaap van Zweden’s direct, unfussy way with Brahms very refreshing. His robust manner and reluctance to pull tempi about result in a rugged immediacy which serves the music very well. Currently Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, van Zweden was only around forty when these recordings were made, having already become the youngest concertmaster in the history of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1979, when he was only 18 years old.
I was already aware of his way with Brahms from his single super-bargain CD of Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies. So impressed by the drive and swing he brought to them, I jumped at the chance of hearing him conduct all four. His manner is similar to that of the young James Levine in the recently issued RCA bargain box which includes his recordings of the Brahms symphonies made in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the Chicago Symphony. Van Zweden’s two orchestras might not have the same sumptuous sheen on the strings or the benefit of the extraordinarily rich and vividly re-mastered 24-bit analogue sound given to Levine, but neither is the sound or playing second-rate. Furthermore, Van Zweden secures an excellent balance between strings and wind, allowing more detail to emerge. His tempi, timings and temperament are all very similar to Levine’s with the exception of the opening movements of the Second and the Third. He takes the repeat in the former but not in the latter. Neither Van Zweden nor Levine gives us the repeat in the first movement of the First. Both conductors nonetheless manage to convince the listener with their interpretations of allegro and both are clearly aware that only one of the slow movements is actually marked adagio. Even that marking is qualified by non troppo, hence there is a free-flowing quality to the second movements in all four symphonies. In his 2003 review, Michael Cookson complains:
"The 1999 Hilversum recording of the Second Symphony has a better orchestral balance but it suffers from a languid and inert first movement. Clocking in at twenty-one minutes; several times it nearly grinds to a halt."
I wonder if this objection is the result of not having realised that van Zweden takes the repeat; his timing is in fact identical to Abbado's lauded Berlin account
and is, to my ears, similarly lyrical and tender. The observation of the repeat lends a sense of pastoral clam and “heavenly length”.
The propulsive qualities of the sostenuto opening of the First are again very similar to Levine. In fact van Zweden gets the pace just right for the allegro opening of every symphony, supplying that special sense of Brahmsian urgency which makes a kind of nervy expectation throb through every bar. It’s a pity that there is a sudden diminution in volume after 26 seconds – a minor blot, presumably a sound-engineering accident. The Scherzo is fleet but the introduction to the Finale lacks some of the weight and sense of foreboding achieved by Karajan in his wonderful, live 1988 recording at the Royal Festival Hall with the BPO – still my favourite performance. The Big Tune is broad and spacious.
There is no great necessity to dissect van Zweden’s treatment of each movement in every symphony as his interpretations really are all of a piece. However, notable successes include the Allegro non troppo of the Second Symphony which sings here with no sagging of the pulse. Van Zweden nicely differentiates it from the following adagio by hinting at a brooding melancholy beneath the bucolic calm. The Third benefits from his avoiding too much sleepiness in the allegro and he confers a yearning beauty upon the grim little Scherzo. The Fourth is characterised by an appropriately heroic determination. This is combined with the lyricism demanded by the profusion of Brahms’ profligate and prodigal melodic invention. The horns opening the andante are superb, but so much of the orchestral playing here is remarkable given that neither orchestra is necessarily considered to be front rank.
Excellent and informative notes written by Bernard Jacobson are provided. Timing errors in the original issue have obviously been rectified.
There are many recommendable recordings, not least by Karajan, Bernstein, Toscanini or, more recently, digital sets by Abbado and Rattle, but Van Zweden’s vision of these four great pillars of the repertoire is wholly cohesive and persuasive. As an exceptionally attractive and affordable introduction to Brahms’ symphonies, this boxed set from Brilliant Classics could hardly be bettered.
Wholly cohesive and persuasive … an exceptionally attractive and affordable set … could hardly be bettered.