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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No. 2 in A major, Op. 16 (1858-59) [38:19]
Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869) [17:06]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [49:40]
Sara Mingardo (alto)
Bavarian Radio Choir
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 15-16 August 2014, Concert Hall of KKL Luzern, Switzerland
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
Picture format: 1080i Full HD 16:9 NTSC. Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Region Code All (worldwide)
ACCENTUS MUSIC Blu-ray ACC10325 [109:00]

This all-Brahms programme was given at the start of the 2014 Lucerne Summer Festival. It had been devised by Claudio Abbado, who was to have conducted it. Following Abbado's death Andris Nelsons took over. During his time in Birmingham I saw Nelsons conduct a lot of music but somehow his Brahms performances always eluded me so I was keen to see and hear him in this programme.

Incidentally, as the question of expansive tempi will crop up once or twice during the discussion I should say that the track timings quoted above include quite a lot of applause at the end of each piece as well as “waiting time” beforehand. Nelsons takes about 35:20 over the Serenade; the actual performance of the Alto Rhapsody lasts about 13 minutes; and the symphony plays for about 44:40.

Brahms’s two Serenades are delightful pieces and it’s a pity we don’t hear them more often. It’s a mild surprise to see the violist Wolfram Christ seated in what is usually the concertmaster’s chair but that’s because Brahms dispensed with violins in this score. In addition to the lower strings this Serenade is scored for double wind and a pair of horns; a piccolo joins the ensemble – to excellent effect here – for the finale. I noted with interest that both flautists in the Lucerne Festival Orchestra play on wooden instruments; it’s not often you see that in modern instrument orchestras these days.

Nelsons visibly delights in the first movement, which he conducts with affection and grace; indeed, a boyish grin of enthusiasm is frequently seen on his face during this concert. That’s unsurprising, I think, given not only that he’s conducting wonderful music but also that he has a magnificently responsive orchestra at his disposal. Much of the first movement of the Serenade is mellow and relaxed and the LFO’s playing is a marvel of flexibility. The scherzo, too, is very fine. I’m much less sure about the central slow movement, however. The marking is Adagio non troppo but Nelsons seems to ignore the non troppo qualification. He takes the music very broadly indeed but, in addition, he emphasises dynamic contrasts rather too much for my taste. As the movement unfolded I became more and more convinced that Nelsons sees it as a big, deep symphonic slow movement. I’m not at all sure that this is what Brahms intended and I think Nelsons is trying to make the music bear more weight than it can bear. Impressive though the lustrous playing is, I was unconvinced. Out of curiosity I dug out a couple of audio recordings of the work. In Sir Adrian Boult’s 1977/8 EMI recording with the LPO the movement takes just 4:43. It’s a long, long time since I played that disc and, doing so now, I was amazed to be reminded of how brisk Boult is here. Great Brahms conductor though he was I think his approach to this movement is too swift. Bernard Haitink seems much closer to the mark in his 2003 LSO Live recording (review). In his hands the movement plays for 7:14 but it’s not really a question of timing, it’s more about how the phrasing feels and I find Haitink convincing in a way that Nelsons, squeezing every last nuance out of the movement, does not.

Matters improve significantly thereafter. The Quasi Menuetto is thoroughly engaging. There’s some very subtle playing to savour here, especially from the woodwinds, and the nuanced approach of conductor and players is very pleasing. The finale is joyous and full of high spirits. Despite the miscalculation over the third movement this is a very classy performance of the Serenade.

Unsurprisingly, Nelsons is probing and serious in the opening pages of the Alto Rhapsody. I wondered if Sara Mingardo’s first entry was not a little too forceful but this is of a piece with her very intense interpretation. She sings very well indeed, really digging below the surface of the music and the orchestra partners her magnificently – the hushed playing is quite marvellous. When the famous tune arrives (‘Ist auf deinem Psalter’) it comes as balm after the searching music that has gone before. My only cavil is that for my taste the sound of the men of the Bavarian Radio Choir is a bit reticent – perhaps because there are only twenty of them? The last chord is followed by a long silence and it’s clear that Mingardo, having been immersed in the music, is much moved. It really is a wonderful score and I appreciated this performance very much.

I’m equivocal about Nelsons’ traversal of my favourite Brahms symphony. There’s much in it that I like – and the playing throughout is fabulous – but what worries me is a tendency to love the music too much at times. Nelsons doesn’t take the exposition repeat in the first movement, much to my regret, but even without this it’s certainly very expansive. In passages such as the very opening I like the genial flow that he imparts into the music but within two or three minutes he slows down significantly, pausing to admire the view, it seems. Here and in other places one has the impression not only that the music is being mined for every expressive nuance but also that detail is being micro-managed. All this, I fear, rather damages the structure of the movement. On the other hand there’s virile strength and no little tension in the development section and that telling horn solo just before the coda is superbly and subtly delivered. Then, however, the last pages are treated expansively, almost indulgently.

Nelsons’ view of the Adagio non troppo is expansively conceived. Arguably it’s too broadly shaped but I have to admit that the burnished playing of the LFO does rather disarm criticism As in the Serenade I feel Nelsons has paid insufficient heed to the non troppo part of the marking. That said, there’s no denying the intensity of his vision. The third movement is beautifully pointed while the Presto sections are electrifying. The finale is indeed con spirito – or, at least, it is in the passages of quick music. However, in the sections where Brahms relaxes the pace I think that Nelsons becomes rather too expansive for comfort. It’s a reading of strong contrasts, both as regards dynamics and tempi but I have to say that at its best – in the quicker passages – it’s very exciting. The festive conclusion is jubilantly done, Nelsons administering a great adrenalin rush, and I’m not surprised that the Lucerne audience greets the performance rapturously. Significantly, the ovation has scarcely begun when the conductor has the orchestra’s superb principal horn, Alessio Allegrini, on his feet for a bow even before Nelsons himself has acknowledged the applause.

Andris Nelsons is one of the most charismatic artists currently before the public and his approach to Brahms, while it may not be to all tastes, brings many rewards. I’m certain that if I’d had the good fortune to have been in the audience at Lucerne I’d have been swept away by the experience. Repeated domestic viewing and listening is a slightly different matter, however; it’s then, I think, that one begins to question some of the more expansive passages. However, the conviction of the interpretations and the world-class quality of the performances go a long way to silencing criticism. It’s a sobering fact that Nelsons was not quite 36 years old when these concerts took place. His is a stellar talent; and it’s exciting to wonder how much more he can achieve. Despite the reservations I’ve expressed I was genuinely excited by this concert.

The sound and vision on this Blu-ray are excellent. The nicely illustrated booklet has a rather gushing piece about the concert.

John Quinn



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