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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [43:20]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [35:16]
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. live, 23-27 January 2013, Kölner Philharmonie, Germany.

The WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under their principal conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste recorded these two Brahms symphonies earlier this season in January 2013. It seems that the recording was made at actual live concerts given at the Kölner Philharmonie with I guess additional sessions for patching. The concert on 27 January was to be broadcast on the radio at a later date in April. I noted that audience members were able to pre-order this CD of the concert for an extra 12 euros on their admission ticket and it would be mailed out to them after Easter. This rushing out of recordings is the sort of thing that works so successfully with the Wiener Philharmoniker with their world famous annual New Year's Concert.
By writing symphonies Brahms was fully aware he was invading the territory ruled so successfully by Beethoven. In fact Brahms had written to conductor Hermann Levi that he could feel the presence of Beethoven marching behind him. Brahms was 43 and at the height of his maturity when his Symphony No. 1 C minor was completed although the gestation period had been long. Sketches for the score were made over twenty years earlier. Many Brahms supporters notably Eduard Hanslick were able to acknowledge the close relationship of the Symphony to the music of Beethoven. Conductor Hans von Bülow went further referring to the C minor symphony as, ‘Beethoven’s tenth’.
Those gravely solemn and heavy threatening thuds of the timpani that open the first movement carry great conviction. In truth no one has managed to provide an opening of such raw power approaching that of Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra. There is much really attractive detail here such as the rising motif for oboe at 1:59 (track 1); it’s attractively rendered. Throughout this movement the assured Saraste successfully provides generous quantities of beauty, passion and menace. A burnished autumnal feel irradiates the E major Andante sostenuto. I was delighted by the colourful wind playing. The rising melody of the solo violin at 5:46 (track 2) always reminds me of a section in Brahms’s own Violin Concerto in D major. Magnificent lyrical melodies abound in the short Un poco allegretto e grazioso right from the swaying opening measures. It’s reminiscent of Mendelssohn. This certainly feels like fresh music of the great outdoors and is evocative of cool early morning dew over a backdrop of Alpine scenery. Saraste provides dark foreboding at the beginning of the closing Adagio - Allegro non troppo ma con brio. With splendid playing creating a wealth of drama it is easy to imagine relentlessly changing Alpine vistas. At 4:33 (track 4) the introduction of the magnificent romantic theme is one of the glories of classical music and the ending is as genuinely thrilling as I have heard.
There was a six year gap between the Symphony No. 1 and his No. 3. Brahms composed the score chiefly in the summer of 1883 at the southwest German spa town of Wiesbaden. A perceptive Hans Richter who conducted the première described the score as ‘Brahms’ Eroica’.
Under Saraste’s baton the opening Allegro con brio is a heady mixture of power and drama. It is easy to imagine an Alpine landscape and almost feel the frosty chill of wintry air. I often feel that the quieter more reflective passages evoke a picture skating on the flat expanses of an ice-covered lake. In the Andante the bucolic nature of the writing is typically coherent and appealingly interpreted by Saraste. In this performance the heart-rending main theme of the Poco Allegretto has a generous quality. For the pizzicato notes on the double basses, serving as an anchor, it feels as if the music would just float away. In the colourful Allegro Saraste conveys a sure sense of urgency and resolve. Potent power resonates throughout with Brahms’ clever and sudden mood-changes often taking the listener by surprise.
It seems to be a rite of passage for conductors to complete a cycle of the Brahms symphonies and over the years I have accumulated several Brahms cycles. My benchmark remains the evergreen performances from Klemperer and the Philharmonia. His aristocratic performances have immense power and were recorded with the great producer Walter Legge at his favoured recording venue, London’s Kingsway Hall in 1956/57. The set on EMI Classics 5 62742 2 also contains the ‘Haydn’ Variations, Alto Rhapsody with Christa Ludwig (mezzo) and the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures. The digitally re-mastered sound on that set is quite superb. I also admire Sir Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker made in 2008 during live concerts at the Philharmonie, Berlin. Rattle’s urgently spontaneous performances convey romantic power of immense intensity. For the first time in a long time I have found a Brahms cycle that can compete with Klemperer’s Olympian set.
The Saraste’s WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln is on magnificent form in performances that feel bold, urgent and highly charged. There is no unwanted noise and audience applause has been taken out. The sound quality is generally splendid although it feels just a touch congested in the forte passages. Whilst not usurping Klemperer-EMI as my first choice this is an excellent release that I will reach for often.
Michael Cookson