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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in c minor, Op.68 (1876) [45:00]
Liebesliederwalzer from Opp.52 and 65 (1869-70) [12:00]
Hungarian Dances: Nos. 1, 3 and 10 (1869, orch.1873) [7:27]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. Orebro Concert Hall, Sweden, March 2011
BIS BIS-SACD1756 [64:27]

Brahms may have taken a long time before completing his first symphony but right from the beginning this work is very imposing. In great performances there is a sense of purpose for what is to come and certainly over the years there have been a small collection, which have that special something. This performance, with a smaller orchestra certainly starts with determination but is very different from established readings. I first thought the orchestra underpowered but had to revise this as the first movement continued, forcefully but without undue haste. The benefit of the lesser forces brought forward the instruments with great clarity. The whole effect is greatly helped by a superb recording. Brahms himself acknowledged his debt to Beethoven in the finale but this is also clear in the first movement.
 
The lovely slow movement is beautifully paced with some achingly lovely wind playing, always a feature of great Brahms’ readings. The secret here lies in conveying emotion, of which this Symphony is full whilst avoiding wallowing in treacle. Dausgaard and his forces are very successful here. Towards the end there’s interplay with the violin - shades of the concerto - and horn that is particularly striking. The third movement seemed a little superficial and speedy despite fine playing; it was almost over before it began.
 
The fourth movement is what many people remember of this work and the famous tune. The build-up seems critical to me so that the tension leads organically to a release. The first part goes really well but with the introduction of the melody there’s a slight feeling of anti-climax with the smaller forces. There was almost a throwback to the sound of Bach but then Brahms used the earlier composer’s theme in a similar moment in Symphony No. 4. Thereafter things go well and there is considerable excitement. The final moments are glorious, edge-of-the-seat stuff, bringing everything together to a splendid conclusion. After some misgivings on first listen I enjoyed this very much, with a slight reservation about the third movement.
 
When this work first appeared on CD it often appeared alone but nowadays there are usually extra items, even sometimes another symphony! Here the fresh and much lighter Liebeslieder-Walzer are delightful. They are akin to lemon sorbet to clear the palate, but superfluous after such a “lean” Symphony; they are perhaps better played on a separate occasion. I’m very fond of the Hungarian Dances but find a few at a time best for enjoyment. Here we have three, orchestrated by Brahms and the effect is very joyful. I defy anyone not to smile in the second. They bring this fine disc to a splendid conclusion.
 
Whilst not suggesting anyone should discard the great Brahms Firsts from the past, most of which I’ve heard - as my long-suffering wife can attest - this is a performance to hear. For the newcomer I’d firstly direct them to James Loughran and the Hallé (CFP) and then Klemperer; the latter wrapped up very cheaply with the other Symphonies and the Requiem. Seasoned Brahms lovers should certainly get this disc and ensure you play it loudly. It is to be hoped that the other Symphonies will follow soon.
 
David R Dunsmore 

See also review in the Download Roundup 2013/11

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 1