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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [47:07]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op 73 (1877) [39:46]
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op 90 (1883) [39:10]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op 98 (1885) [40:50]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 2006-12, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, Goldener Saal des Musikvereins, Vienna
Released individually as 900111 & 900112
BR KLASSIK 900140 [3 CDs: 47:09 + 40:50 + 79:05]

Sets of Brahms’s complete symphonies are in plentiful supply, and if you browse the Masterwork Index, you can spend a happy afternoon or more delving into the highlights and lowlights of a long recording history and tradition that numbers many hundreds of versions. Mariss Jansons’s complete Brahms symphonies with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks has been around for a while now, and this is a straightforward repackaging of the two original jewel-cases into a cardboard box. Symphonies 2 and 3 have been reviewed already on this site and were admired by Michael Cookson as “amongst the finest available versions”. The two CD set with Symphonies 1 and 4 appeared a little later and were also reviewed by MC as “highly accomplished … impressive”, though “unable to match the pervasive aura of heart-searching and the strong sense of excitement provided by Klemperer/Philharmonia and Rattle/BPO.”

There is a venue change between the Second and Third symphonies, though you would hardly notice this, nor would you necessarily identify these as live recordings. There are a few very minor ticks and sniffs here and there but in fact there is barely any audience noise at all. The First Symphony sets out Mariss Jansons’s stall in a performance that oozes refinement. There is no shortage of passion in the opening, but you somehow sense that the power will always be derived from faithfulness to the score rather than an externally imposed wildness. Narrative content in the first movement is as important as musical excitement to Jansons, and the following Andante sostenuto becomes an chapter in this storyline rather than a more acute contrast. The string sound is full-blooded without extracting every ounce of added emotion, and the expression is eloquent without becoming sentimental. Brahms in his sunny and playful mood is brought out in the third movement, and we are rewarded with a sophisticated pastorale with dappled walkways and busy scenes – a beautifully framed and vibrant picture. The finale returns to the seriousness of the opening, the spirit of Beethoven lurking somewhere beneath the surface in a storm that never quite breaks before the clouds slowly part in that famous horn theme which is answered by the flute, in both cases taken with great panache.

All of these performances are deeply satisfying, and the Second Symphony is no exception, Christian Wildhagen’s booklet notes reminding us of the “merry, sweet [and] quite innocent” description given to the work by its composer. This is a blanket comment covering a multitude of complexities, but the uplifting nature of this symphony is palpable in Jansons’s soaringly expressive first movement. Even the Adagio non troppo has its undercurrent of optimistic forcefulness, and you can hear from where Carl Nielsen found some of his ideas at 1:40 in and just beyond. The Allegretto grazioso is playful without becoming vapid, and given plenty of energetic forward momentum without turning the movement into a head-over-heels tumult. Even with the massed tuttis of the final movement there is a classical refinement to the playing which implies restraint but also hints at energy in reserve, and this is part of what keeps everything interesting.

The Third Symphony is more enigmatic in the profile of its origins when compared to the Second, but Clara Schumann’s description reproduced in the booklet serves to point us towards “the mysterious enchantment of forest life” in the first movement, “people in prayer … the joys of nature” in the second, “a pearl … bathed all around in [ ] sorrow” for the third, and the “transfiguration” of the finale, with “such loveliness one finds no words to describe it”. This is just one point of view and can be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, though if anyone was in tune with Brahms’s thoughts and intentions it was probably Clara Schumann. In any case, this is a beautifully proportioned performance, the momentum of that regretful third movement a little slower than usual, but giving itself room for the melodic shapes to flourish and for every note of that ‘pearl’ to shine through. Nothing is incidental here, and the intensity is also held from beginning to end in the final Allegro, the double-bassoon growling through in the quieter passages, and that sense of a long journey in completion but abandoned with reluctance permeating every bar.

Mariss Jansons’s elegant style means that the opening of the Fourth Symphony is expressive and lyrical rather than overtly dramatic. This is not to say that there is an absence of drama, but control and phrasing coupled with melodic eloquence carry the day. The Andante moderato with its horn-calls and subtle shifts of mood and atmosphere show more clearly than many where the line between Brahms and Mahler can be drawn, and the admirable clarity of the Allegro giocoso show Brahms in a genial light, smiling and urbanely avuncular, even where the drama reaches its height. The line here might more easily be traced to Elgar. That final Allegro energico e passionato with its ever-evolving chaconne is played with passion and drive, and with some superb instrumental solos and ‘misterioso’ moments.

The big-hitter sets I happen to have to hand at the moment are those with Sir Simon Rattle on EMI/Warner Classics (review) and Riccardo Chailly on Decca (review). Rattle remains an impressive option, and with the Berlin Philharmonic is somewhat the inheritor of Herbert von Karajan’s opulence, though Jansons isn’t always the swifter of the two. Chailly’s award-winning Gewandhausorchester set manages to fit all of the symphonies onto two CDs allowing for a truckload of extras on CD3, and his conducting is generally tighter, tougher and a bit more dynamic all-round, though still by no means a hair-shirt listen. In terms of sonic perspective the BR Klassik recording is a bit less transparent on first impression, on returning after listening to these comparisons. The bass is full but less distinct, the string gloss sitting at the top of the sonic spectrum and the mid-range a little more recessed. These are all impressions derived from A/B comparisons done though headphones. The BR sound is actually very good and one to which it is easy to become accustomed, and without messing around with alternatives I doubt anyone would find much to complain about. If you turn the volume up a bit more than usual – always a good recommendation with Brahms in any case – then things snap more into focus. You would think repackaging this Bayerischen Rundfunks recording would make it more of a bargain, but at time of writing you will only save a few pounds on the separate releases, and both Rattle and Chailly undercut this set on price by quite a margin, especially when you take some of the extras into consideration. In the end, this set of Brahms’s symphonies is well worth having, but needs to be more cost-competitive to be an absolute recommendation.

Dominy Clements

Previous reviews (individual releases): Symphonies 1 & 4 ~~ Symphonies 2 & 3



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