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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

We generally don't think of Brahms' works as rife with mood swings and gushing emotions in the manner of so many other composers in the Romantic era, especially Tchaikovsky. Rightly so. As a result many conductors have tended toward straightforward readings of Brahms' larger scores. I would say Edward Gardner falls into this camp in his new accounts of the First and Third symphonies. He pretty faithfully follows Brahms' markings, generally eschewing excessive rubato, radical shifts in tempo, and extremeness in dynamics or other aspects of phrasing. But his interpretation is not bland or devoid of character. In fact, it is quite individual in many respects.

The Un poco sostenuto Introduction of the opening movement of the First Symphony is played with plenty of angst and passion, though not with the crushing fortes one sometimes hears in other performances, notably from the timpani. Gardner's tempos are slightly on the brisk side in the first movement and throughout the symphony, but well within traditional limits. The Allegro exposition exhibits a fierce and urgent character, despite the fact that the Bergen strings are less prone to bluntly slash away than to exhibit a bit more legato than is usual. I find this approach works very well in the exposition and repeat. Gardner stirs up tension quite effectively in the development section and the remainder of the movement is conceived and played very well by the Bergen players.

The second movement is another success: Gardner captures Brahms' gentle and lovely lyricism in his consistently well shaped phrasing, the strings and oboe sounding especially resplendent. The brief third movement has the perfect nonchalant and chipper demeanor here, the Bergen woodwinds playing very convincingly throughout. Thus, Gardner effectively sets up the mood for the contrast that will come with the finale, where the sense of angst and conflict from the opening movement returns, but of course only to be banished in the end. Gardner uses a bit more leeway in tempo shifting than in the previous movements, but he is never extreme in his choices. The warm lyrical theme (similar in certain ways to the big theme in the Beethoven Ninth finale, though clearly not an imitation) is nicely phrased and played here, but what is most outstanding is the way Gardner works up the tension near the end of the theme's second appearance: from around 8:58 he begins to transform the triumphant character to one of struggle and instability, and then from about 10:19 to 11:00 the music seems on the verge of erupting, thanks to well chosen dynamics and accenting. It is all very well executed by the Bergen players, as is the remainder of the music: the conclusion brims with an epiphanic and truly liberating feeling in this powerful performance.

Gardner's take on the Third Symphony is no less successful. He and the Bergen players convey the symphony's brighter world most effectively here. Again, tempos are on the brisk side, but only marginally so, and one can have little quibble with the pacing anywhere in the work. The first movement begins with a fine muscular opening from the brass and the exposition and repeat that follow are played with accuracy and plenty of spirit. The stormy character of the development section is effectively conveyed and in the reprise Gardner deftly shapes the playing to gradually yield a somewhat epic and heroic mood before the quiet ending arrives.

The second movement's lyricism takes on an appropriately radiant and serene character, the mellow and lovely sound of the clarinet leading the way from the opening. The rest of the orchestra catch the mood in the proper spirit and plenty of detail is pointed up throughout this movement, the feeling of warmth nicely conveyed. The ensuing panel, arguably the only one with more than a hint of sadness or loneliness, is well conceived and played, though the melancholy of the main theme is less potent here owing to Gardner's slightly brisker pacing and his way of phrasing the second subject to soar to the heavens so serenely, almost angelically. He shapes the opening of the finale to achieve a sort of furtive effect as the orchestra holds back a bit to set up contrast with the eruptive forte and tempestuous music just ahead (:51). The heroic alternate theme, which is typically heard with the cellos standing out, is presented here with the horns also given some prominence, yielding a balance that works nicely here. Gardner stirs up tension in the struggle that emerges and delivers the quiet, serene resolution subtly and elegantly. Two fine performances then that now make me a bit anxious for the release of Gardner's accounts of the Second and Fourth symphonies.

Chandos offers excellent, well balanced sound reproduction. Both performances here are quite convincing and acquiring this disc will not be a disappointment. That said, there is so much competition in this repertory that one always finds it difficult to make a recommendation. In the distant past, I much admired the Brahms symphonies of Bruno Walter and Eugene Ormandy (both now on Sony). But more recently I look to John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria), Riccardo Chailly (Decca), and Robin Ticciati (Linn) in these two symphonies as well as in the complete sets. If I have to make a choice for the best First and Third, I think for a variety of factors I might give a slim edge to either Chailly or Ticciati, but I would rank Gardner a very excellent alternative.

Robert Cummings
Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ David Dunsmore

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