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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor [44:36]
Symphony No. 2 in D [39:04]
Symphony No. 3 in F [37:08]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor [40:53]
Tragic Overture [12:16]
Academic Festival Overture [9:33]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur
rec. Paul-Gerhardt Kirche, Leipzig, October 1976
Recording remastered by Polyhymnia in Stereo and Multi-Channel
PENTATONE PTC 5186 182 [3 CDs: 185:00]

Experience Classicsonline

PentaTone have made a name for themselves not just for their outstandingly engineered original recordings, but for their re-mastering of older archive recordings for surround sound systems. Grumiaux’s Beethoven Violin Concerto with Davis and the Concertgebouw is often cited as a notable success, and here they turn their hand to Masur’s Lepizig Brahms cycle, originally released by Decca/Philips. However, it’s not a successful set, and it’s difficult to see why PentaTone felt it was worth resurrecting.

The chief problem is Masur’s anaemic conducting, which seems to lack energy and an adequate sense of pacing. The problems set in early with a lethargic opening to the First, just about excusable for the sostenuto introduction, but not for the Allegro, which limps rather than bounds, draining the music of almost any sense of drama. The slow movement is worse, slouching its way through soupy orchestral textures, and the Allegretto is too slow and so is drained of any of its sunny light-heartedness. Things just about pick up for the finale, with a well balanced take on the big string theme, but it’s too little too late and the final peroration feels as though it has been utterly underserved and under-prepared. The Second is also too expansive, languishing in its first two movements so that they music threatens to grind to a halt. Furthermore, Masur’s homogenous direction seems to sap the music of any light and shade. Again, the finale storms its way over the finishing line but the music does not feel as though it has deserved the jubilant climax. The opening breath of the Third lacks the exhilarating downward sweep it should have, and the Allegretto feels so tightly controlled that it lacks the quality of unfolding from within. The Fourth, too, is lacklustre in its first movement, though the others are a little more successful, with a pleasant slow movement. The Overtures are more successful, more taut with a keener sense of where the music is going, but that will be little consolation for most.

Sadly, the Leipzigers’ playing in these recordings is nowhere near the standard of the top ensembles, with some seriously off colour brass in the Second and some insecure wind solos in the Third. Furthermore, the sound on these recordings isn’t all that hot either, with soupy inner textures and a lack of clarity above the stave, though I can’t judge whether that’s down to the Decca original or the PentaTone re-mastering.

No: if you’re looking for a Brahms cycle there are far better places to go out there. For me, the finest modern Brahms cycle is Abbado’s from Berlin, featuring peerless playing and incisive interpretative vision. If you’re on a budget you can’t go wrong with Karajan’s 1978 cycle with the BPO, utterly compelling, though it’s becoming harder to find these days.

Simon Thompson


















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