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Elbphilharmonie Hamburg - The First Recording
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 4 [40:09]
Symphony No. 3 [32:22]
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester/Thomas Hengelbrock
rec. Großer Saal, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, November 2016
SONY CLASSICAL 88985405082 [75:49]

The opening of the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s sparkling new concert hall, is probably the highest profile classical music event in 2017 so far. The hall looks remarkable, rising on a prow over the city’s docks as a symbol of regeneration and renewal, but also a sign of how seriously Hamburg (and Germany) takes the place of its culture in general and its classical music in particular. It may have gone millions over budget and years behind schedule, but as a statement it’s an unmistakable indication that the city sees art as worth investing in, and the people of Hamburg appear already to have taken it to their hearts. London concert hall designers, take note!

Even before the hall officially opened on 11th January 2017, its resident orchestra, the newly renamed NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, committed the hall’s first recording to disc, and Sony have rushed it out as a memento of the new building. It’s fitting that they have chosen Brahms, Hamburg’s most illustrious musical son, as their subject, and they stake out their claim by playing two of his symphonies, centrepieces of the core Austro-German repertoire.

So how does the acoustic sound? Well, pretty good, we’ll all be relieved to hear. The sound, as captured here, has great clarity, as one would hope, giving weight to the strings, but balancing them beautifully against the winds, so that nothing ever sounds forced or constrained. There is breathtaking resonance to the strings during their great statement of the second theme of No. 4’s slow movement (track 2, 7:50), something which could well have been chosen as a showcase moment for what the hall (and the musicians) can produce. The brass are totally present as part of the soundscape, but are never allowed to dominate. Solos are all captured very well too, though, and the timps are cracking during the Scherzo.

Brahms is quite a safe (and probably wise) choice for a first recording. After all, it might take them a while to decide where to place the microphones. You don’t have quite the aural spectacular that you’d get in, say, Berlioz, Wagner or Mahler. That’s where the real test will probably end up coming, and I’ll be fascinated to hear what it sounds like when it does.

As for the performances, the disc does have a USP in giving us Brahms’ original version of the opening of No. 4, a wind sigh that later becomes the great “Amen” that ends the first movement, and which here runs straight into the violins’ first theme. As far as I can tell, this is the only recording where you’ll hear it included. Only Chailly’s Brahms set features it, and on his it is recorded alone as a separate bonus track rather than integrated into the rest of the movement. I might not want to hear it every time, but it gives a pleasing symmetry to the movement which I didn’t notice until the very end.

The rest of the symphony is vigorous and incisive, with precise string tone and a great sense of movement, Hengelbrock shaping the pace and structure of the piece very convincingly, to my ears. The horns ring out wonderfully at the start of the slow movement, the rest of which flows very convincingly, and the Scherzo is jolly rather than especially revelatory. There is a pleasing implacability to the Passacaglia, and the entry of violins in their first variation is brilliant, setting up for a swirlingly intense reading of the rest of the movement.

The opening of No. 3 is very nippy, but the second subject is more restrained, with the clarinets sounding lovely, and there is a lovely sense of swell to the quiet ending. The slow movement is also quite pacey, but has lovely wind tone throughout. The cello tone is rather odd at the opening of the Allegretto, so stripped back that it sounds almost like a solo (even though it isn’t). For some reason, this movement sounds the most immediate, almost as though it had been recorded separately from the others, and with slightly different settings, though there is no firm evidence in the booklet that that’s the case. The finale begins sounding rather close, but develops a sense of scale up to the big tutti of 4:07, which rings very pleasingly and subsides with a lovely sense of ebb and flow.

So this is a good disc, and it is important that it is the resident orchestra who should get the first recording, even if they’re not quite in the class of some of the other guest orchestras that will be playing there. The clarinets, for example, have an unfortunate breath-break during the opening section of No. 4’s slow movement, and you wouldn’t hear that in Berlin or Vienna! How fascinating it will be to hear those orchestras perform in this hall.

Simon Thompson



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