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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [35:31]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884/5) [38:43]
Philharmoniker Hamburg/Simone Young
rec. live, 8-10 October 2009, Liederhalle, Hamburg. DDD

With this release Simone Young completes her cycle of the symphonies of Brahms. How fitting that the symphonies should be recorded by the orchestra of Hamburg, the city of the composer’s birth. Her disc of the Second Symphony was reviewed by Dominy Clements but it doesn’t appear that the First Symphony (OC 675) recording was sent to us for appraisal. Dominy felt that the Oehms version of the Second Symphony would “rank high amongst the many ‘good’ but a little short of ‘great’”, observing, justly, that the catalogue already contains a number of outstanding recordings of the symphony as, indeed, is the case with the Third and the Fourth. Perhaps it’s the presence of so many competing versions that has delayed Oehms in releasing Ms. Young’s Brahms recordings, which have been ‘in the can’ since 2008/9.
I haven’t heard either of the previous releases in this cycle but I suppose I came to this recording favourably disposed because I’ve had good experiences of Simone Young’s work on disc in Bruckner (review) and Mahler (review) and also in concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (review review). Indeed, her performance with the CBSO of Bruckner’s Eighth in its rarely-heard original version so impressed me that I made a point of seeking out as quickly as I could her Hamburg recording of the score which had passed me by when first issued: I was not disappointed (review). So, expectations were high when this Brahms disc arrived. Were they met?
The Third opens promisingly. The very opening is not easy for a conductor to start successfully. The writer Michael Steinberg has commented that the opening is “a strange and profoundly Brahmsian mixture of the fiery, perhaps even the heroic, with the ambiguous, with something uncertain.” Young launches it convincingly and as the movement unfolds she invests the music with much energy but she also does the gentler passages well. The music sounds fresh and there’s a pleasing outdoor feel to much of it. To a large extent this is due to the supple, alert playing of the Hamburg orchestra. Some may find the basic pulse a bit fleet but I find it refreshing and I also like the ‘give’ that Ms Young imparts. The short but important exposition repeat is taken, which pleases me. The ending of the movement, which shows the poetic side of the F-A-E motif, comes off very well.
There’s some lovely woodwind playing at the start of the gentler, wistful second movement. This is delicately played and the orchestra puts excellent light and shade into the music: the contribution of the woodwinds and horns is particularly gratifying. This is a delectable reading. The Poco allegretto, which, like its predecessor, is fairly restrained, is also a success. There’s a most welcome feeling of suppressed tension as the finale begins and when the music bursts fully into life there’s excellent drive and articulation. Even better, however, is the warm, serene coda - one of my favourite passages in all Brahms - where we are gradually brought back to F-A-E via some wonderful movements in the harmonies. This was a favourite work of Elgar’s and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one hears such an echo of this passage from Brahms’s Third in the glowing closing pages of Elgar’s Second Symphony. Young brings Brahms’s symphonic argument full circle in a most satisfying way.
I like much of her way with the first movement of the Fourth. Occasionally she does press forward with a little too much urgency - and at the end of the movement she makes an acceleration that’s not marked in the score: however, in my experience she’s not alone in doing that and the effect is exciting here. Apart from one or two minor reservations over pacing her reading of this movement strikes me as being taut, cogent and well-paced. There’s good dramatic thrust in the appropriate places and she obtains a nicely burnished sound during the more thoughtful passages.
The second movement feels just a little too steady in speed to me, at least at the start: this is, after all, an Andante. However, by the time we’re a few minutes in I was convinced, not least because the playing is so persuasive - sample the gorgeous, yet not overdone, way the cello melody is voiced at 4:02. It is a very beautiful movement and it’s played as such. The Allegro giocoso struck me as being very fast the first time I heard it. However, once I had a chance to get used to the speed I found it bracing - and, indeed, ‘giocoso’. Furthermore, a check with other versions on my shelves suggested that Young is no faster than many conductors whose readings I admire. In the great passacaglia finale the first few variations are powerfully projected. The desolate flute variation and the slow variations that succeed it are well done and when Tempo I is restored the music-making has sound purpose to it. I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps the speed was a bit too brisk in some paces once we’re back at Tempo I - especially between 5:49 and 6:42 - but it’s undoubtedly exciting and red-blooded.
I enjoyed these performances very much. The Philharmoniker Hamburg is on consistently fine form and the playing is reported in very good sound - I listened to this hybrid SACD as a conventional CD. The catalogue is well stacked with recordings of these symphonies and, as Dominy Clements suggested when reviewing the Second Symphony, some of Simone Young’s predecessors have set down towering interpretations of the Brahms symphonies. That said, it would be rash - and possibly impertinent - to try to select a ‘Best in Show’ for masterpieces such as these and these Hamburg performances can, I think, hold their heads up high in a competitive field. No one investing in this disc will be disappointed; it makes for rewarding listening and the performances make one think again about these great symphonies. I must track down the two previous issues in Simone Young’s cycle.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Brahms Symphony 3 ~~ Symphony 4