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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

It goes without saying that there are many celebrated/recommended recordings of the Brahms symphonies. One has only to think of those of Harnoncourt, Karajan, Klemperer, and Toscanini, to mention but a few. Gardner and Chandos are therefore treading into well-loved, popular classics territory wherein formidable competition lies.

The first thing to remind ourselves is that this recording receives the full attention of the best Chandos sound – this is a Super Audio CD.  The strings have a luscious bloom; the brass blares heroically; the woodwinds sing joyously; the percussion deliver power and dramatic impact.

I will forego any comment on the development of both symphonies. Their history is well-known and well covered in Nicholas Marston’s succinct notes.
On the whole, Gardner’s readings are very satisfying and buoyed by an attention to detail and nuance, as well as shades of drama and pacing. I will say, though, that I think the opening movement of the First Symphony sometimes lacks dramatic tension – I prefer a more whip-like treatment.  The second movement – the lovely Andante sostenuto - is magic in Gardner’s direction, hauntingly beautiful in its tender shaping, and just listen, for instance, to the section for the first violin with the horn accompaniment.  The Poco allegretto is sweetly tranquil here contrasting the more joyous rustic dance section. The Finale is magnificent, powerful, imposingly assertive and life-affirming.

The effect of Brahms’s Third Symphony, beloved by Elgar, has been tainted somewhat in the 20th century by the use of Brahms’s lovely melody for the third movement in the pop song, ‘You’re the song Angels sing…’. Gardner delivers a necessarily lighter touch for this work and recognises a feminine daintiness and lilt for the first movement’s waltz figures but does not deny its edgier, more pensive sections.  The Andante second movement is poignant and again feminine but this time more maternal, one might feel, from Gardner’s approach.  The third movement sings tenderly but the finale provides a much-needed muscularity – and Gardner lets rip, the running figures and bombast impressing mightily.

With such glowing sound and nicely phrased, nuanced readings from the Bergen Orchestra, this is a compelling offering in a crowded field and I look forward to Gardener’s readings of Brahms’s Second and Fourth Symphonies.

Ian Lace

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