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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [45:43]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [43:05]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [37:34]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) [41:47]
NDR Sinfonieorchester/Günter Wand
rec. live: 14 February 1990, Köln, Philharmonie, Germany (1, 3); 29-30 November, 1 December 1992 (2), 17 December 1990 (4), Hamburg Musikhalle, Germany
PROFIL PH14046 [3 CDs: 168:08]

This reissued set of the four Brahms symphonies was first released by Profil in 2012 as part of a five disc set to mark the centenary of the birth of the great German conductor Günter Wand (1912-2002). The anniversary box set consists of eight live recordings that Wand made with the NDR Sinfonieorchester (North German Radio Symphony Orchestra) of Hamburg between the years 1982 and 1996. These Brahms symphonies were recorded 1990-92 at the Köln Philharmonie and the Hamburg Musikhalle. Earlier in 1982-83 Wand with NDR Sinfonieorchester had made a studio recording of the Brahms symphonies for RCA Red Seal - a set that gained considerable acclaim.

Günter Wand was born in 1912 at Elberfeld, Germany. It was not until he was over seventy that his talents became recognised internationally as one of the finest conductors of his generation. Probably the last of the great interpreters of the ninetieth-century symphonic tradition it is pleasing to see that in recent years Wand is finally being given the recognition that his talent richly merits. Listening to these live radio recordings it comes as no surprise that Wand insisted on ample rehearsal time with his orchestras. The relatively few commercial recordings involved considerable duplication of his much-loved Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert although his concert repertoire was considerably wider than those four giants of the Austro-German symphonic tradition. As the number of high quality releases have demonstrated, the archive of live recordings of made-for-radio broadcasts has served Wand well over the years. The source of the majority of these involves live and studio recordings if it was the policy of the respective radio company to keep rather than wipe the broadcast relay tapes.

Wand did valuable work in the post-Second World War development of German radio orchestras. Notably with the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne he recorded complete cycles of Schubert and Bruckner for RCA Red Seal. In addition he successfully collaborated with the Munich Philharmonic and the two main Berlin orchestras. Wand’s live recordings with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and especially the Berliner Philharmoniker are amongst his most successful. The stunning live accounts of Bruckner 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9 with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1996/2001 remain my exemplars for these works. They are stunningly performed with spectacular sound on RCA Red Seal. There are no finer accounts of these Bruckner symphonies on record.

I have already reviewed Wand’s splendid eight disc box set of The Munich Recordings with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on Profil. Even more impressive were the stunning performances on the eight disc set with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin on Profil.

Wand had an excellent relationship with the NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg and served as principal conductor for the years 1982-91 being appointed as honorary conductor in 1987. With them he recorded studio cycles of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies (mentioned above). Released in 2014 another example of Wand’s excellent work with the NDR Sinfonieorchester is a seven disc set of previously unreleased live recordings from 1983-2000. It features Bruckner’s Symphony Nos. 3, 7, 8 and 9 and also Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

Brahms was aware that by writing symphonies he was invading the territory ruled by Beethoven saying that he could feel the presence of Beethoven marching behind him. It was Hans von Bülow who referred to the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor as “Beethoven’s tenth”. Brahms was 43 and at the height of his maturity when his First Symphony was produced. Although its gestation period had been protracted with sketches dating back over twenty years. The première was given in 1876 at the great hall of the Karlsruhe Museum under Otto Dessoff. Wand recorded the Brahms First Symphony live at the Musikhalle, Hamburg in February 1990. With this, the first of Wand’s live set of the four Brahms recordings, he confirms his mastery. There are more hard-hitting and emotionally charged recordings of the Brahms First Symphony but none played with as much impeccable style and mature expression as this Musikhalle Hamburg account from Wand.

Brahms quickly completed his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 in 1877. It was written mainly during a summer holiday in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, Austria. Premièred in 1877 at Vienna with Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic it is occasionally described as Brahms’ ‘PastoralSymphony. Wand recorded it at live concerts from the Musikhalle, Hamburg in November/December 1992. I found this an impressively coherent account in which Wand unmistakably lavishes considerable care and attention. The results are fresh and invigorating, strongly evocative of rustic Alpine scenes. The convincing playing has a heartfelt glow resulting in a reading that feels delightfully uplifting. The vivid range of orchestral colours that Wand fashions so expertly is striking.

Six years elapsed between Brahms’ Second Symphony and starting work on his Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 a score that he composed largely in the summer of 1883 at the German spa town of Wiesbaden. Later that year the première was given at a Vienna Philharmonic concert under Hans Richter who described the score as “Brahms’ Eroica”. Wand recorded it at a Cologne Philharmonie concert in 1990 and his deep understanding of the music is evident from first to last. The finely judged balance that Wand achieves with his Hamburg players is remarkable and the intelligent shifts of mood and tempi demonstrate him at his best.

Brahms worked on his Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 in 1884/85 in the Austrian resort of Mürzzuschlag. The Fourth Symphony was a success at its 1885 première with Brahms himself conducting the orchestra of the Meiningen Court Theatre in Thuringia. Sometimes described as the ‘ElegiacSymphony, its regard has endured and many judges consider it Brahms’ finest symphony. Wand recorded the Fourth Symphony at a concert at the Musikhalle Hamburg in 1990. Immediately one senses how much the Hamburg players respond to Wand’s perceptive direction. In this vivid and convincing interpretation there's considerable detail and vivid orchestral colouration. The unerring sense of grandeur together with considerable depth of feeling results in a gripping performance.

The radio engineers certainly know their job and provide crystal clear and splendidly balanced sound. The full bodied impact of the climaxes is stunningly conveyed as is a wealth of fine detail.

As these are all live recordings some minor audience noise is detectable. There's also some substantial applause left in at the end of all but one of the works (No. 3) and the applause is included in the timings.

I’m sure Günter Wand would never have wished to match the extremes of pervasive heart-searching and biting robust drama as contained in the acclaimed recordings of the Brahms symphonies from Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia on EMI and Sir Simon Rattle/Berliner Philharmoniker on EMI/Warner. Wand’s impeccably prepared NDR players give accomplished performances of the highest possible integrity.

These live recordings under Wand’s baton capture a special and rarely achieved fission between players and audience.

Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphonies