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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1862-76) [45:28]
Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883) [35:45]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2018, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway

“Aimez vous Brahms”? Well, I certainly do, as anyone who has been to my house will confirm. It’s a real privilege to review two of the four symphonies which have been so much part of my life over the past thirty years or more. The Fourth is my special favourite, much loved by my late dad but both works are exceptional.

There have, over the past eighty years or more, been very many recordings of these symphonies. I have those that I turn to regularly but it’s always good to hear a fresh view and this is certainly what we have here. I listened to this disc as a conventional CD and found the sound exceptionally good; I’m sure the SACD is even better.

Brahms, a close friend of Robert Schumann and latterly of Clara, was constantly tortured by the fact that he wasn’t Beethoven. Hence the fact that he took years over his toils writing Symphony No.1 before he was happy to publish. Comparisons with Beethoven simply show how music had progressed in nearly fifty years but the First is great in its own right.

How a conductor approaches those opening chords of the First Symphony signals clearly how the music will proceed: doom or optimism. Gardner’s slightly understated beginning means that he doesn’t commit all from the outset. The contrast with Toscanini (wonderful) who then gets more frenzied is stark.

The depth of sound brings out the rising momentum and yet the overall structure, so essential in Brahms remains. The wind playing, a Brahms hallmark, is excellent throughout. The second and third movements are very acceptable and again show the strengths of this orchestra. The gorgeous theme of the third movement seems as good as it can be and never sinks into sentimentality. The dénouement of the finale, with its famous tune, brought in by horns rarely fails to inspire. My ‘go-to’ version is the unique Karajan/BPO live from 1988 (Testament SBT1431) but this is pretty good too. What comes through is Brahms’ genius rather than just a conductor’s statement and this is very effective. Again, the ‘big tune’ comes in slightly understated so that the crescendo registers successful.

Brahms’ Third Symphony, always seems to me autumnal, full of golden hues and mellow fruitfulness This illustrative nature is brought out well in this performance. In particular the romantic Andante receives a very fine rendition: it sings. One of its many wonders is its brevity; it never overstays its welcome. It’s not an easy symphony ‘to crack’ and there are many recordings that ultimately fail ‘to crack’ it: Boult’s fine effort, Karajan, four times and famously Toscanini who tried to take all the best bits of previous radio recordings. Brahms doesn’t take kindly to this treatment. The great Nikisch - Furtwängler’s predecessor at the Berlin Philharmonic - described the symphony as Brahms’ Eroica. Again we hear those Beethoven comparisons but I don’t think they help in appreciating Brahms’ modesty and his unique sound.

The beginning shows clearly where Gardner is going. He sets a tone of determination but not belligerence, all mixed with some resignation. The ending takes us back to the start of the symphony, a noble descent. This is a lovely performance, up there with my favourite Bruno Walter.

These are excellent performances, splendidly played and magnificently recorded. They convey Brahms’ life-affirming music - a real joy to listen to. I look forward to hearing Gardner’s Second and above all his Fourth. I’m glad that these have been released separately, rather than as a set. This approach gives the listener a chance really to appreciate these works’ individual qualities. This is, after all, a very well-filled disc both in terms of time and musical qualities. Documentation is to match: exemplary notes by Nicholas Marston.

David R Dunsmore

Previous review: Ian Lace

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