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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 [49:02]
Tragic Overture [14:33]
Symphony No. 2 [44:38]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn [17:05]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. September, October, December 2012, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0733 [63:35 + 61:43]

During the 2012 Edinburgh Festival, Valery Gergiev brought the LSO for a four-night residency at the Usher Hall, during which he played the complete symphonies of Brahms and Szymanowski, plus a few other works by both composers. I thought at the time that the pairing of the two composers was misguided and unrevealing, and most of the Szymanowski works meant absolutely nothing to me. I remember enjoying the Brahms very much, though. It felt like a proper event having the complete Brahms symphonies played by the London Symphony Orchestra with their principal conductor over four consecutive nights, and it was a festival highlight for me that year. Gergiev later did the same programmes in London, and it is from those Barbican concerts that we have these CDs. Nos. 3 and 4 are to follow.
After my good Edinburgh experience I came to these discs with high levels of anticipation, and lots of things are very good. However, maybe I’m misremembering the excitement of the concerts, or maybe Gergiev’s interpretation changed during the journey from Edinburgh to London, but I found his take on the First Symphony inconsistent and rather frustrating. Many of the problems spring from his timings, which are infuriatingly fluid and eccentric at times. He begins well, getting the poco sostenuto just about right, slower than some of the fleet-footed performances that have come into vogue recently but marginally more pacy than the cast-iron tread of, say, Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic whose 1977 performance nevertheless remains my favourite one of this work. Sadly, too much of the ensuing allegro fails to hang together because the tempo relations don’t work. It begins fairly sluggishly so that the listener is not caught by the drive of initial excitement, and the conclusion of the first subject is too self-consciously pesante, as if Gergiev were conducting with a mallet, while the second subject slows up far too much, ruining the flow; there’s a case for this but to my ears Gergiev takes it too far. The ensuing triplet theme works better and the great string theme that broadens out in the development sounds very impressive on the LSO violins, but the huge rhythmic chords at the end of the development sounded uncontrolled and undisciplined. The Andante was also too slow for my taste, and a bit indulgent in the way Gergiev seems to milk the string sound, though the LSO winds do, at least, have a gorgeously autumnal quality to their sound. Only in the third movement does Gergiev begin to let himself go and allow the music to breathe naturally. This spills over into the start of the finale, whose dark, searching quality Gergiev finds rather successfully, dispelled by a superbly played horn solo - and every bit as impressive is the shimmery halo of violin sound that surrounds it. The brass chorale also sounds great and there is a richness to the big string theme that is very satisfying. The ensuing development has a lot more pace about it, as well as a consistency of argument that was missing from earlier. Gergiev’s skills at building a climax are demonstrated ably in this section, even if they desert him somewhat in the recapitulation, which feels rather formulaic and “by numbers.” However, when the trombones begin to take the lead in the coda a new majesty takes grip, partly because Gergiev refuses to speed up too much and maintains an impressive level of control. The ending is, therefore, very good, but it points up just how inconsistent a reading of the symphony this is. Parts are very satisfying, but it just doesn’t hang together as a whole. I wish Gergiev had applied himself more consistently throughout the work.
The second symphony convinced me more. Gergiev keeps the tempi moving in all four movements, and the first movement in particular has a fitting sense of flow to it. One section moves seamlessly into another, avoiding the choppy and inconsistent feeling of the first movement of No. 1. He is expansive in the second movement, without wallowing, and he controls the central section, with its threats of danger, with impressive strength. He treats the Allegretto with an appropriately light touch and taps into the energy of the finale without sounding reckless. If the winds impressed me most in the first symphony then it was the strings that were particularly fine in No. 2. The middle strings, in particular, sound fantastic at the second subject of the first movement, or the opening theme of the Adagio. The violins are sunny in the Allegretto, clipped and precise in the finale, and there is a communal sense of coming together here to cross the finishing line in style. 

The fillers are pretty good too. The Tragic Overture is suitably brooding, with a brilliant opening and a sweepingly impressive second subject. The central section has a searching, uncertain quality to it, and there is an impressively irrevocable quality to the final bars. The Haydn Variations are on the nippy side, but there's nothing wrong with that in itself, and at least here it is followed through consistently with tempi that appear to make sense in relation to one another.  The Vivace fifth variation, for example, dances all the more convincingly after the slower Andante con moto that precedes it.  There is a pleasing legato feel to Gergiev's reading too, most notably (comically?) with the horns at the outset of the sixth variation, but it works very well for the theme itself and the swelling violin climax of the Grazioso seventh variation is enchanting.
All told, then, this isn’t a bad set, and parts of it are very good. What a shame that the first symphony wasn’t more consistent! Unfortunately, that makes this pairing pale next to the classic interpretations, such as Karajan’s or Szell’s, many of which are now available at budget price, just like this issue. Maybe Gergiev’s third and fourth will turn out better.
Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Brahms Symphony 1 ~~ Symphony 2