Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [44:16]
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877) [41:31]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. Royal Festival Hall, May & September 2008
LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA LPO-0043 [44:16 + 41:31]
Listeners turned off by the broad, Germanic manner in Brahms will find Vladimir Jurowski's approach appealing. The conductor keeps the textures consistently clear and airy, and his tempi are frequently mobile, not to say motile. The C minor symphony's slow introduction moves along to the point where the ominous drumbeats are almost swift. The Allegretto grazioso of the D major hustles along, tempered by a lovely rhythmic buoyancy; its tuttis have a folk-dance energy, while the contrasting faster section is positively rollicking.
The flowing treatment brings musical benefits. The first-movement development in the C minor is a model of controlled energy and turbulence, though the control wanes slightly as the music moves into the recapitulation. The syncopations at 2:19 inject a restless urgency into the Andante sostenuto. The forthright pace for the D major's first movement, enlivened by a nice one-in-a-bar lift, makes sense of the driving, incisive bits, even if it doesn't allow for real caressing of the second theme. And that symphony's finale goes with a rare verve and uplift - it's exciting, even thrilling.
Fortunately for Brahms, the prevailing lightness doesn't come at the expense of either tonal body or sheer power. The soft-edged attack of the LPO strings generates an attractive cushion of warm, slightly grainy sound. The sonorities fill out expansively in the crescendos of the C minor's Andante sostenuto; in the finale, the trombone chorale's tutti reprise at 15:02 is satisfying and affirmative.
Jurowski knows how to let the music breathe, but he's inconsistent about doing so. In the C minor's trim, athletic first movement, the wind-down at 4:24 holds too tightly to the tempo; it could use a little extra space, of the sort that the conductor had allowed shortly before, at 3:57. The Un poco allegretto e grazioso eases nicely into its close. The D major's Adagio non troppo is flowing and dignified, with the second theme bringing a nice outpouring of tone. In the finale, conversely, Jurowski's attempt to relax into the second theme is stiff and awkward; he brings it off better in the recap.
There are a few minor problems. In the C minor, the downbeat of the first-movement exposition is a dull thud -- it's crisper on the repeat - and the principal clarinet was having an off day, turning the motif at 12:14 into a flatfooted duplet, fitting the third movement's triplets stiffly into the beat. There are passing skittish moments in both finales. The tutti statement of the C minor's big tune clearly wants to push faster, but has to slow down almost immediately to accommodate the eighth notes. The D major's finale suffers a few nervous, smudged attacks.
That said, there remains much to enjoy in Jurowski's refreshing Brahms performances, which are handsomely recorded.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach and journalist.