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 SACD
PENTATONE PTC 5186 182 [3 CDs: 185:00]

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. Grumiauxís Beethoven Violin Concerto with Davis and the Concertgebouw is often cited as a notable success, and here they turn their hand to Masurís Lepizig Brahms cycle, originally released by Decca/Philips. However, itís not a successful set, and itís difficult to see why PentaTone felt it was worth resurrecting.

The chief problem is Masurís 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 itís 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, Masurís 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 Leipzigersí 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 isnít all that hot either, with soupy inner textures and a lack of clarity above the stave, though I canít judge whether thatís down to the Decca original or the PentaTone re-mastering.

No: if youíre looking for a Brahms cycle there are far better places to go out there. For me, the finest modern Brahms cycle is Abbadoís from Berlin, featuring peerless playing and incisive interpretative vision. If youíre on a budget you canít go wrong with Karajanís 1978 cycle with the BPO, utterly compelling, though itís becoming harder to find these days.

Simon Thompson

Masurís anaemic conducting seems to lack energy and an adequate sense of pacing.