Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 [45:00]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 [45:24]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 [37:17]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 98 [40:15]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
rec. 14 May 2009, 28 June 2007 (2), 22 October 2009, Royal Festival
Hall, Southbank Centre, London (3) and 4 February 2007, Queen Elizabeth
Hall, Southbank Centre, London (4). DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD255 [4 CDs: 45:00 + 45:24 + 37:17 + 40:15]
I reviewed last year the set that contained the First and Third Symphonies but the earlier volume, containing the Second and Fourth is new to me and I’ve been keen to hear Dohnányi in the other two symphonies. Now Signum has reissued the complete cycle, conveniently packaged together though I think I’m right in saying that the two separate volumes remain available.
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 a good level of energy. Throughout the movement one has a sense of direction and firm control from the podium. The slow movement is nicely done, with pleasing solos from the leader and from the principal horn and oboe players. The long introduction to the finale is spacious in Dohnányi’s hands and 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 pretty 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 first movement of the Second Symphony is taken at a nice, flowing pace, which is very much to my taste. Dohnányi, unlike some conductors, takes the exposition repeat – hurray! – which means that not only do we get a second chance to hear all that wonderful music as it is reprised but also that we hear (from 5:10) the first time bars that Brahms took the trouble to write and which are well worth attention in their own right. That decision alone disposes me in favour of this performance and in fact the reading of the whole movement is extremely satisfying. The slow movement is the only example of an Adagio movement in Brahms’s symphonies. Dohnányi plays it spaciously. The music is very well phrased and the climax is powerfully projected. The finale is exhilarating, without being at all driven. Dohnányi builds the movement to a rousing conclusion.
In the Third Symphony, as in the preceding symphonies, Dohnányi 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 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 – 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.
In the first movement of the Fourth Symphony Dohnányi again shows himself to be a shrewd judge of tempo. He leads a trenchant and strongly projected account of the movement and the second movement is delivered in a similar fashion. The Scherzo is forthright and robust. Unsurprisingly, the great passacaglia finale is given a reading of no little power and strength. The rigour of Brahms’s music is really given its due in a taut and very convincing reading.
There is applause at the end of each symphony – vociferous in the case of the First and Second symphonies – but otherwise I couldn’t detect much audience noise.
In my original review of the First and Third symphonies I described Dohnányi’s interpretations as “central”, by which I meant a traditional, reliable view of Brahms. That view applies equally well to the other two symphonies. Throughout the set the Philharmonia plays excellently – the rapport with the conductor is evident – and the performances are reproduced in good sound. The catalogue is full of Brahms symphony cycles but these Dohnányi readings are consistent and very rewarding and, as such, are competitive. This set is well worth considering, especially since the price is advantageous.
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