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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876)
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. 11-12 March 2007, Liederhalle, Hamburg. DDD

It was reviewing, very recently, Simone Young’s impressive recordings of the last two Brahms symphonies that made me want to seek out her account of the First symphony. This was, I believe, the first in her cycle to be released, as long ago as 2010 but though her recording of the Second Symphony was reviewed by Dominy Clements, we haven’t previously published a review of her interpretation of the First.
When I began to play this performance I was immediately brought up short by the extremely broad tempo that Ms Young adopts for the introduction to the first movement. The music is very slow and deliberate, the timpani pounding. I really can’t recall hearing the passage played at such a speed before and after listening to the symphony I went scurrying to my shelves to make some comparisons on this point. Among the conductors I selected at random Kempe is swifter, as are van Beinum, Cantelli and Bychkov (review). Toscanini is appreciably faster. The closest I could find to Ms Young’s pace was a majestic 1952 live performance by Furtwängler with the Vienna Philharmonic (review) and even that had much more sense of momentum. I’m afraid this Hamburg account sounds portentous at this very slow speed. I’m sorry if I seem to labour this point but how you start a piece is very important and surely this particular score should start with purpose, not grandiose rhetoric. The tempo marking is Un poco sostenuto - ‘somewhat sustained’ - and I don’t think that this marking justifies the pace adopted here.
Mindful of the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression I wondered what might await me after the introduction. Happily, however, once the Allegro gets under way things improve significantly. Simone Young imparts good dramatic thrust to the music and leads a performance that contains a good deal of urgency and dynamism. Rightly, she takes the exposition repeat. The playing is often strong and muscular but there’s appropriate relaxation where Brahms eases off into lyrical mode. The orchestra displays a good, firm string sound and the wind section plays very well. The reservation I have - and this may be a fault of the engineering rather than attributable to the player - is that the timpani sound somewhat dull and booming and when the drums are playing loudly their sound rather congests the texture.
The Andante sostenuto is given an expansive and lyrical reading. Early on we hear fine solo oboe playing and later the principal clarinet is equally expressive. The string tone is consistently warm and Simone Young shows a fine empathy with the music, encouraging her players to shape the phrasing most pleasingly. In the closing pages there are distinguished contributions from the principal violin and horn. This is a very good account of the movement. The third movement is also a success. The music sounds mobile and flowing: this is outdoor, sunny Brahms.
Ms Young achieves a good sense of mystery in the dark brooding opening pages of the finale. The famous horn call, which is treated expansively, resounds majestically. Throughout the introduction a pretty steady tempo is maintained - apart from in the bars of accelerando for the pizzicato strings - and this is successful. The celebrated big tune, when it arrives, is nobly sung and its subsequent working out is energetic. There’s good drive in the passage leading up to the chorale passage but the chorale itself (16:11) is a big, bold statement for which the tempo is broadened significantly. I appreciate that some broadening is often considered appropriate at this point - and I’ve heard a good few conductors take it at least as slowly as Ms Young - but I prefer it if any broadening is not quite so pronounced as here.
I don’t know if this recording was made during live performances. The other three symphonies were recorded live but there’s no explicit statement to that effect in the booklet for this disc.
Overall, this is a good but not outstanding recording of the First Symphony - but anyone acquiring it should certainly not be put off by the very slow beginning. However, in a crowded and highly competitive field this version does not have special claims on the attention of collectors and the niggardly playing time certainly blunts its competitive edge. I listened to this hybrid SACD as a CD; the sound is good but not the best that I have heard from this source.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 1