Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [43:55]
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880) [13:32]
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. live, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, March 2008 and January 2012 (Overture)
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 676 SACD [57:29]
Simone Young is building up quite a catalogue with Oehms Classics, including plenty of Bruckner, with the Third and Second symphonies reviewed here, and some Mahler. Her Brahms Symphony No. 1 can be found on OC 675. This is full-fat Brahms, with vibrato in the strings, nice juicy brass sonorities and a warm balance to the recorded sound. The Hamburg Laeiszhalle is by no means the most resonant acoustic on the planet. While one might have wished for a bit more air around the orchestra on the whole the general effect is colourful and pleasing.
These are billed as live recordings, though no specific concert dates are given. There is no perceptible audience noise or applause, but nor do we get any of that edge-of-the-seat excitement which live performances can generate. I first discovered Brahms’ symphonies on long-play cassettes in those live recordings with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon. At a basic level I soon learned that this is music which is best appreciated with the volume turned up to decent levels, but also that it needs a sense of life-or-death grip and intensity from the first moment beyond silence to the final echo. Moving on through different recordings and performances, I began to appreciate the importance of the role which the conductor plays in these works, in their control over Brahms’ sculptural sense of tension and release, lyrical line and intense drama. Bernstein may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his are unforgettable recordings for the reasons listed above. Gunter Wand is another great conductor in these works, his grip deriving from an unchallengeable sense of detail. Karajan’s 1970s DG set is also worth having for the sheer luxury of hearing the Berlin Philharmonic in its prime, the BPO also being Sir Simon Rattle’s vehicle for a superbly recorded set, big and generous in every way (see review, and also here).
There are just too many great recordings to name, and I suspect that Simone Young’s will rank high amongst the many ‘good’ but a little short of ‘great’. There are certainly no shortcomings in the performance, with a fine, lush string sound to express Brahms’ beautiful lines, though I do find them lacking just a little in weight where it counts at the beginning of the second movement Adagio non troppo. Here it should be a sound which spreads warmly through your veins, but it’s the warmth-giving brushstrokes of the winds which stand out more in this case. Young’s timings are not dissimilar to Marin Alsop’s on her fine Naxos recording, 8.557429. Alsop’s articulation can tend to draw attention to the ends of phrases a bit too much at times and she does pull the tempo around more. In general though, the London Philharmonic sounds that much more expansive - with a greater sense of conviction than Young, if perhaps not quite as convincing in interpretative terms as Rattle or Bernstein.
Where Simone Young is at her strongest is in the sense of flow in the music. The feel of organic development and narrative progression in the twenty minutes of the first movement is nicely prepared and executed, with a secure sense of connection from beginning to end. It’s not the most exciting experience in the world, but the orchestral shading and structural shaping is very fine. The Adagio could be a little richer - the unctuous chocolate tones of the opening missing just that extra sheen of expansive glory to make it a truly ‘wow’ moment. The winds blend very nicely however, and there are plenty of gorgeous moments. Young wears her heart on her sleeve in this movement, and the narrative effect borders on melodrama at times - one can feel the spirit of Berlioz watching over this reading. The Allegretto grazioso is nicely turned, the active and somewhat urgent momentum taking on greater significance than picking over every detail; not that we’re lacking in precision either. Young doesn’t over-egg the eloquence or try to get us onto the dance floor. She lets the notes of the score speak for themselves and highlights the essential simplicity of the movement.
The final Allegro con spirito indeed has plenty of spirito, and is a fittingly dramatic performance. The orchestra is finally allowed to let rip, though the acoustic does tend to close in around the quieter passages. Young is alive to Brahms’ restless use of variation. I like the way she gives reprises of themes and passages a different character in the same way Brahms always moves things around or tweaks them, never quite repeating and certainly never dull.
I can’t quite understand why you would place the Tragic Overture after the Symphony No. 2, both the overture title and even the key pattern - D minor to D major - seem to beg the opposite to what we have here. This is a decent enough Tragic Overture, but doesn’t build up quite the head of steam the greatest recordings offer. There are plenty of fine qualities in the playing, but the lack of genuine impact at climactic moments count against this being a potentially decisive selling point for the disc as a whole. I would also argue that the SACD element of the recording need not push you too hard in the direction of selecting it as a first choice. The placement of instruments and clarity is sharpened a little in surround-sound, but the effect is by no means dramatic in my experience, and I fear the venue has to take major responsibility for this.
This is a Brahms Symphony No. 2 which is very fine, and will grow on you with time as it has with me. This is however one case in which, with a top drawer already full to bursting with excellence, I would gently guide you towards more stirring and stimulating accounts. Now, what did I do with those extra-long-play cassettes?
Very fine, thoughtful Brahms … but …
Masterwork Index: Symphony 2