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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68 [45:39]
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 73 [41:19]
Symphony No 3 in F major, Op 90 [39:23]
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98 [42:17]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live 8/10 November 2016 (1); 11/12 November 2016 (2); 15/17/18/19 November 2016 (3); 18/19 November 2016 (4), Symphony Hall, Boston
BSO CLASSICS 1701/03 [45:39 + 80:47 + 42:17]

It’s been very interesting coming to these new live recordings of the Brahms symphonies, issued on the Boston Symphony’s own label, just a few weeks after reviewing live recordings made in January and February 1951 by Bruno Walter with what was then the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York. Walter was nearly 75 years old when he conducted those performances whereas Nelsons celebrated his 38th birthday during his series of performances (on 18 November 2016). Yet it is the older man who often seems to inject more urgency into his performances while Nelsons, while not lacking in drive and spirit at the appropriate times, appears more ready to adopt an expansive approach. I wouldn’t say for a moment that one approach was “right” and the other “wrong” but rather that they represent different approaches to the music. Furthermore, it must be remembered that in each case we are discussing live performances, caught ‘on the wing’ where a tempo decision may be made on the spur of the moment according to the way the conductor feels as a performance evolves.

I enjoyed listening to these Boston performances, not least because the orchestra plays so well. I have the impression, as I have from other recordings I’ve heard, that Nelsons and the BSO have gelled and it seems to me that they are fully responsive to his conducting of these symphonies. There’s much to admire about the interpretations, too, though, as we shall see, Nelsons does display a tendency to linger and that may not be to the taste of all listeners. In a liner note Nelsons comments that the Brahms symphonies “have been part of my life for my entire career” and that he relishes the challenge of returning to them regularly. I never saw him conduct Brahms during his Birmingham years but I believe he played quite a number of the composer’s works with the Philharmonia in London and elsewhere. These interpretations seem to me to be “lived in” and Nelsons’ commitment to the music is never in doubt. Indeed, if his interpretations have a fault it may be that he loves the music too much.

The Introduction to the First Symphony has plenty of tension. At once we hear a big, full sound from the BSO, the timpani pounding imposingly. The main allegro bounds forward convincingly; Nelsons omits the exposition repeat. In a strong, virile reading of the movement he relaxes at times to make expressive points but doesn’t overdo this. He shapes the Andante sostenuto well, aided by sensitive playing from the orchestra. I admired the eloquent oboe playing (John Ferillo) and in a warm performance the depth of the orchestra’s bass tone is a welcome feature. The beautiful duet between violin and horn in the closing pages (Malcolm Lowe and James Sommerville) is radiantly done. I like the performance of the third movement, not least the admirable woodwind contributions. Nelsons gives the music the right intermezzo quality but I think he slows down excessively over the last few bars. The introduction to the finale is long on rhetoric. In many ways it’s impressive but I do wonder if Nelsons doesn’t overplay his hand somewhat by treating the music a bit too expansively. The big horn call (2:57) is expansively played though tension is maintained. The big string melody (5:13) is broad and confident, the pace just right. Thereafter the allegro music surges very well and Nelsons’ conducting of it is exciting. As the finishing line comes into view he really whips the music up (16:20) and though he pulls back for the chorale he isn’t excessively slow, which I welcome. Then there’s a headlong rush up the home straight. I bet the audience, commendably disciplined throughout, accorded the performance a great ovation but this has not been retained on the recording.

The Second Symphony is the one which I’ve seen Nelsons conduct before (review). This new performance has much in common with his 2014Lucerne account, not least the conductor’s tendency to expansiveness. He takes a warm, lyrical view of the first movement and there’s much to be said for that – Brahms’ main theme positively invites such treatment. I did wonder, from the first time that I listened, whether perhaps the approach was not just a degree too relaxed. That impression was reinforced on further listening – though I still enjoyed the performance overall – but what really influenced my thinking was hearing Bruno Walter’s 1951 performance. He gives the music all the space it needs but I feel that he moves the music forward with more purpose than does Nelsons and the older conductor is less inclined to linger over transitions to new paragraphs. Walter’s time of 14:54 compares with Nelsons’ 16:18 and for once the timings do tell the story, I think. You can’t accuse Walter of being over-hasty yet he always maintains focus in a way that Nelsons doesn’t always appear to do.

Both conductors pace and feel the Adagio non troppo in a similar fashion. The opening sets the tone for Nelsons’ reading where the round, golden tone of the BSO cello section is a feast for the ears. Nelsons makes this into a big movement and it’s beautifully played by the orchestra, their phrasing flexible and their shading of the music absolutely responsive to the demands of composer and conductor. There’s delicacy and lightness in the Boston traversal of the third movement. The start of the finale has plenty of vitality but between 4:21 and 5:40 Nelsons slows to admire the view and I feel he applies the brakes a little too much. Walter, by contrast, is swifter from the start and when he reaches the same, slower point in the score (at 3:56) he too reins in the speed but by not as much as Nelsons. Though Nelsons’ treatment of the passage in question is very beautiful I think Walter gets the balance right between the adoption of a broader tempo while not sacrificing too much momentum. After this passage the fast music resumes and Nelsons does the rest of the movement very well. In particular, in the last couple of minutes the music gets an ideal burst of great energy and brio.

The Third Symphony starts very well but you may not be surprised to hear that it’s not long before Nelsons eases off the tempo for expressive ends (1:24). There’s much more urgency in Walter’s 1951 performance and at the place I’ve just referenced, where Nelsons eases back the throttle – quite rightly – Walter does the same but to a lesser degree. As a result he’s able to keep the music moving forward just a bit more. There’s excellent energy in Nelsons’ performance at the start of the development section. However, he caused my eyebrow to rise in the passage that begins at 7:56 with an important horn solo. It’s right to slow down at this point – Walter does too – but I fear that Nelsons, in his desire to probe for expression, goes too far and to be frank the music seems in danger of grinding to a halt. There are many convincing passages in Nelsons’ account of this movement but I fear that he undermines the basic structure on several occasions by adopting too indulgent a tempo and the last few bars are surely far too slow.

He’s very expressive and even suspenseful at times in the Andante but I can’t escape the feeling that the music is pulled about too much at times. It’s telling that he takes 9:25 where Walter, with no undue haste, gets through it in 7:57. It’s impossible not to admire the Bostonians’ gorgeous phrasing in the third movement, even if one has the impression that the music is loved a little too much at times. The start of the finale is strongly projected and dynamic. When the extended wind-down to the conclusion begins (6:38) there’s a golden glow to the playing. Nelsons manages these closing pages very successfully; hereabouts he does not overplay his hand.

The first movement of the Fourth Symphony is soundly done; the performance has backbone. Between about 7:00 and 7:55 the broadening of the tempo is arguably a bit more than is comfortable but overall I think this reading is a success. Quite a broad tempo is adopted for the Andante moderato and I liked the evident care for the musical line that Nelsons displays. He conducts the movement persuasively and even though the word andante appears in the tempo marking Nelsons is surely right to make it into a genuine slow movement. The short third movement is vibrant and joyful: in my mind’s eye I can see Nelsons conducting this music exuberantly and with a big grin on his face. The opening of the great passacaglia is very powerful, as I expected. The BSO’s principal flute, Elizabeth Rowe, offers highly eloquent playing in the sparsely scored flute-led variant (from 3:06). Unsurprisingly, Nelsons is very measured in this episode and the pages that follow (to 5:53) but I think the music can take it. Thereafter Brahms racks up the pace and the intensity once more and Nelsons exhibits a strong and at times dramatic grip on the remainder of the movement.

It was serendipitous that I should have had the opportunity to listen to this new set so soon after hearing Bruno Walter’s 1951 recordings You might have expected that a younger conductor would be more urgent and thrusting in his approach to Brahms than a conductor who, even by 1951, was something of an elder statesman, but such is not the case, It’s Nelsons who tends to bring out the more mellow, even autumnal side of Brahms. In passing it’s interesting to note that Brahms finished his First Symphony in 1876, the year that Walter was born, and that Walter was twenty-one when Brahms died. So Walter offers a genuine link with Brahms and with the performing traditions established in the composers own lifetime. However, the fascination of these four great symphonies is that they admit of more than one way of playing them.

I have placed some emphasis on Andris Nelsons’ tendency to adopt expansive tempi not because I necessarily disagree with his approach but rather to attempt to describe to readers what they’re likely to experience if they listen to these performances. If you have a strong preference for ‘lean’ Brahms then these performances may well not be for you. On the other hand, if you like a warm, affectionate approach to this music – and one, moreover, that is far from devoid of energy – then I think you’ll respond positively to these interpretations. I enjoyed them overall whilst recognising that there are other ways to play Brahms.

My enjoyment of the performances was enhanced no end by the very fine playing of the Boston Symphony. The orchestra is on excellent form throughout these performances. The recorded sound is very good and there’s no evidence whatsoever of the presence of the audience: the Bostonians are impeccably quiet during the performances and there’s no applause at the end of the symphonies. The succinct liner notes are by the Brahms biographer, Jan Swafford.

This set confirms that the relationship between Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony is flourishing. I’m keen now to hear him in action with his ‘other’ orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

John Quinn



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