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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 [38:06]
Symphony No. 4 [39:09]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. December 2012, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0737 SACD [77:15]

After the first two symphonies and the German Requiem, this release brings Gergiev’s LSO Brahms cycle to its conclusion. There are lots of good things, most notably the playing of the LSO and the quality of the recorded sound, but on the whole I found them rather inconsistent and unconvincing, much like most of the other discs.
 
The third begins with a pleasing bloom on the opening chords and an exhilarating rush down the scale in its opening theme, but the first movement as a whole is rather genteel. I wanted much more drama at the great moments of churning, such as the opening of the development or the beginning of the coda. The winds sound fantastic in the slow movement, but the third movement is rather anonymous, the LSO cellos for once not really rising to the occasion of that glorious main theme. Furthermore, the finale, while very well played, lacked the white-knuckle excitement that it really needs and is, frankly, too slow at times. For a really good taste of how this movement should go, go to Chailly’s Leipzig cycle, where this movement crackles with tension and excitement, making Gergiev’s performance sound like a stroll in the park by comparison.
 
The Fourth is, on the whole, better, but it doesn’t stand up to comparison with the greats. There is a pleasing sense of sighing to the opening string phrases, and some appropriate, if subtle, rubato to go with it but, again, I wanted more drama from the great moments of tension, most notably in the development or the surging whirlpool of the coda. There is a poignancy to most of the slow movement that is effective enough but, for some reason, the LSO strings do not surge in the way they should during the great second theme and, while the Scherzo is solidly played, its lack of precision is all too evident from a slack opening chord. The taut drama of the finale plays to Gergiev’s strengths, though, and he controls its unfolding tension with skill, never allowing the tension to flag, even in the slower sections, which are beautifully controlled - and which feature a knockout flute solo. He attacks the faster music with tightness and precision, and the music storms to its final coda with the grandeur of a Greek tragedy.
 
Great moments aren’t enough to redeem the disc as a whole, though. Despite fine performances across the symphonies, I can’t really favour this cycle when there are so many other great ones out there, and on budget price, at that. Comparisons even with Haitink’s LSO Live set end with that version coming out better, and Karajan, Szell and Rattle all come out trumps over both.
 
Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Symphony 3 ~~ Symphony 4