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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 [42:30]
Symphony No. 2 [40:26]
Symphony No. 3 [33:39]
Symphony No. 4 [40:42]
Piano Concerto No. 1 [49:44]
Piano Concerto No. 2 [49:44]
Violin Concerto [42:47]
Academic Festival Overture [12:41]
Haydn Variations [17:19]
Tragic Overture [12:14]
Julia Fischer (violin)
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, September 2014 (1); Vienna Musikverein, September 2014 (2, 3); Jan 2014, Severance Hall, Cleveland (4, Violin Concerto, Academic Festival); Severance Hall, February 2015 (Piano Concertos, Haydn Variations, Tragic)
Picture Format 16:9; PCM Stereo, DTS & DD5.1; Region Code 0
BELVEDERE BVD08005 [3 DVDs: 129:00 + 96:00 + 116:00]

This is a frustratingly uneven release; good in some ways, but very ordinary in others. While individual performances might be good, I doubt it will tempt many people to invest in it as a set. It’s perfectly understandable for the Clevelanders to set down their current thoughts on Brahms – I’m sure they haven’t done it systematically since Ashkenazy – but they haven’t got anything terribly interesting or groundbreaking to say. That’s not to undermine these performances: in many ways they are perfectly good; but this is never much more than an acceptably middle-of-the-road Brahms set.

I began with the concertos, which are extremely well played, but not that exciting. Julia Fischer is her usual poetic self in the violin concerto, and I loved the way she introduces the violin's own theme towards the end of the repeated exposition. She is also beautifully (and surprisingly) subtle at the end of the cadenza, and flows gorgeously through the Adagio. The orchestra are fine accompanists but, barring a superb oboe soloist — the standout orchestral musician of the whole set — in the Adagio, they sound a little bit like they are on auto-pilot and, barring a few big climaxes such as the start of the first movement's recapitulation or the final run of the Rondo, Welser-Möst doesn't seem to be too engaged. It's also let down by rather bizarre recorded sound. Unlike the other Severance Hall items, the sound feels unusually boxy and resonant, with too little focus, and this doesn't serve the piece well. It's also inconsistent with the rest of the set, which makes it a puzzling slip.

Piano Concerto No. 1 also gets off to a bad start with far too much legato in the opening, smoothing over all the jagged edges of that opening string tune and totally underplaying the defiant power of the theme. That legato works much better for Bronfman in his opening idea, as the piano tries to calm everything down, and then again in the chordal second subject, which is beautiful in its poetry; smooth and soothing, more consolatory than you tend to hear. Bronfman is, in fact, by far the dominant partner in the concerto, from the torrent of octaves that intiates the development to the storming way he launches the recapitulation. Some might argue that that's the way it should be, with an utterly dominant soloist, but I wasn't impressed by the way the Orchestra seemed almost to cede their responsibility wholesale to him. Thankfully, everybody has woken up a little by the time of the finale, and Welser-Möst, in particular, gives the main Rondo theme a real shot in the arm. I can forgive a lot, though, for the gorgeous slow movement, which finds the Cleveland strings at their considerable best; a rich, velvety sound that really caresses the notes and seems to survey them from every side. Bronfman responds in kind with a gentle, meditative reading that seems almost prayerful at times. If that's how you like your Brahms 1, then Bronfman is as good at it as anyone else.

If anything, the orchestra-soloist dynamic is reversed for the Second Piano Concerto. Here, it is Welser-Möst who has the more energetic streak, while Bronfman's opening cadenza feels withdrawn and introverted. He warms up as the movement progresses, but he is no firebrand. Instead, he seems to be trying to tap into the movement's more poetic tendencies, which is all well and good, but not entirely in keeping with his conductor's view. Thankfully, however, proper Appassionata arrives in the Scherzo, from both orchestra and soloist, and the string playing in the Trio carries bell-like clarity and thrilling strength. The cello solo in the Andante is beautiful - and beautifully accompanied - while the piano line is a model of dreamy stillness. The finale, too, is shot through with sunlight and the gypsy-influenced second theme is played with a smile. So both the piano concertos have very satisfying moments in them, but it's a pity that there are such problems with both opening movements.

The finest thing about the symphonies is the orchestra’s string section. Cleveland is the most European-sounding of the big American orchestras, and Brahms really plays to their strengths. The first symphony showcases this right from the off, with the dominance of the violins in the opening movement. Key moments, such as the emergence of the sweeping theme in the development section, or the rich tone of the slow movement, are really very good, and when the big theme of the finale appears it makes a palpable impact. The winds are strong too, with that oboe solo repeatedly impressive, and Welser-Möst’s tempi are steady throughout. The opening is sustained, not slow, and he takes the main allegro of the finale pretty quickly, with an ending that is very exciting; but otherwise everything is safe and solid.

No. 2 feels more lean and a little better thought-through, though this is undoubtedly helped by the (predictably) far superior acoustic of the Vienna Muskiverein, which places a lovely glow around the sound. Welser-Möst’s reading is more considered, too, seeming almost to rock the sound into existence at points, and giving the first two movements a benevolent feel that is actually rather appealing. It's also nice to see just how much the cellos are enjoying themselves at the opening of the slow movement. The third movement is light and breezy — that sensational oboe soloist again — and the galloping finale has a perpetual smile on its face.

The opening of no. 3 is rather too well behaved, however: the fanfare is restrained, and the violins tear down the scale with rather too much legato for it to be exciting. In fact, things only become energised when the cellos churn through the opening of the development, and the coda really goes for it. The second and fourth movements are more consistently successful: the slow movement breathes gentle restraint throughout, and the finale is genuinely exciting. The third movement is taken at too fast a canter, however, losing both its autumnal contemplation and its contrast with the finale. Incidentally, and for information, Welser-Möst does not observe any of the symphonies' exposition repeats.

We are back in Severance Hall for No. 4 which, like No. 3, takes a while to find its heart, but whose first movement develops into a reading of seriousness and string-led urgency. The slow movement is very beautiful, the strings dripping with vibrato in their great second theme, and the Scherzo is full of ebullience. The finale is the finest movement out of any of the symphonies on this set, however. Welser-Möst drives it with carefully proportioned, architectural energy, and the orchestra seem to up their game, too. The strings conjure up torrents of passion, while the grounding provided by the brass is exceptionally strong, with the winds by turns poignant and tragic. It's a great way to crown the orchestra's symphonic Brahms. In this symphony, however, as with the Violin Concerto which shares the disc, they employ a bizarre split-screen technique, focusing on both conductor and a particular instrumentalist at the same time. That method might suit a tense police drama, but in a filmed concert it draws attention to itself and becomes both distracting and irritating.

The other items are similar. Welser-Möst conducts a steady-as-she-goes performance of the Academic Festival Overture, which actually feels quite stodgy when compared with a lot of the more period-influenced recent performances. The Tragic Overture, by contrast, is much faster and more exciting, almost breathlessly so in the big tutti moments. The Haydn Variations flow nicely, and they suit the orchestra's European sound very well, the winds being particularly effective. The theme's return at the end of the concluding Passacaglia is very satisfying.

Barring the split-screen mentioned above, the filming is mostly fine, though the camera-work in Severance Hall is overly fond of the big sweep in. However, it's nice that they include overhead shots of Bronfman's hands on the keyboard.

So, while I don’t wish to damn this set with faint praise, it’s perfectly fine, with some very good moments, but it doesn’t challenge other DVD maestros, such as Bernstein or Thielemann for Brahms sets. More seriously, it’s a long way short of the great audio recordings on CD. If you’re not bothered about the pictures, and you really want to hear the Clevelanders in Brahms, you’d be far better advised to track down George Szell’s legendary recordings of the symphonies on Sony/CBS. Those recordings have stood the test of time for a good reason.

Simon Thompson



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