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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op 68 [50:07]
Tragic Overture in D minor, Op 81 [12:25]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig / Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live September & October 2019, Gewandhaus, Leipzig. DDD
PENTATONE PTC 5186 850 [62:32]

This, I believe, is the first release in a Brahms symphony cycle from Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. I’m not entirely sure if all the other symphonies were safely ‘in the can’ before the Covid virus put a stop to most live music-making, but I rather think that may be the case. The booklet includes a moving message, dated June 2020, in which Blomstedt says he feels “blessed to send a new recording of Brahms’ symphonies into this world, especially in these times.” The use of the plural suggests to me that all the symphonies were recorded, possibly in a series of concerts last autumn. I sincerely hope this is the case because, having heard this first release, I’m impatient to hear the remaining symphonies.

Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig have a well-established partnership. He was the orchestra’s principal conductor from 1998 to 2005 and he now holds the title of Honorary Conductor. Their recordings together include a very well-regarded Beethoven symphony cycle (review), of which I’ve only experienced the Sixth and Seventh so far (review). There’s also a Bruckner cycle which has attracted great praise; sadly, that’s currently unavailable and I never got to hear it before it dropped out of the catalogue. One day…

I’ll start with the ‘Tragic’ Overture, partly because that’s where I started the first time I listened to the CD. Initial impressions are very favourable. Those two gruff opening chords are quite resonant but the sound is not ‘tubby’. I was struck by the depth and fullness of the string tone. At times the performance is strongly projected but the more reflective passages are done equally well and there’s a full range of dynamic contrasts. The notes remind us that Brahms originally thought to call the piece his ‘Dramatic’ overture and that draft title is even more suited to what I hear from Blomstedt than the ‘Tragic’ label on which Brahms finally settled. The veteran conductor and his superb orchestra bring out every nuance in the score in what is, quite simply, a terrific performance.

If Blomstedt’s way with the overture was compelling then his account of the symphony is even more so. At the very start of the work the timpani strokes are firm but not pounding; by this means the drumbeats give the music good momentum while avoiding any portentous heaviness. Blomstedt’s pacing of the introduction strikes me as ideal; he takes due note of the first two words in the tempo marking Un poco sostenuto. The main Allegro is virile and muscular, although the lyrical passages are beautifully done too. As I listened, it seemed to me that the collective sound of the Gewandhausorchester is ideally suited to Brahms’ music. Blomstedt observes the exposition repeat; in a performance of such distinction that’s a treat. He conducts with a great sense of purpose and I found the performance as a whole utterly convincing.

We are then treated to a wonderful account of the Andante sostenuto. The playing is glorious from start to finish and I particularly enjoyed the superb contributions of, first, the principal oboist and, later, the solo horn and violin. The latter two instruments lead the way in a radiant performance of the closing pages. Blomstedt’s conception of the music is faultless. There’s more admirable playing to savour in the third movement, not least from the woodwind choir. This genial performance put me strongly in mind of Brahms’ two Serenades.

The Adagio opening to the finale has an air of what I might call effortless drama, by which I mean that it all seems natural; nothing is overstated. When those passages for pizzicato strings arrive there’s a fine feeling of suspense. Moreover, this is one of many occasions when one appreciates the excellence of the recorded sound; each note is clearly heard and with ideal natural resonance. The truthfulness of the recording is once again apparent when the great horn call rings out, as though over a valley; the horn sound has genuine presence (2:33). The celebrated big tune sings nobly and Blomstedt ensures that the melody has ideal momentum (from 5:02). The development of that tune is full of energy and drive, yet the music is never over-driven. When the big tune is restated (9:17) I had the impression that the pace was marginally more spacious than was the case first time round; a subsequent comparison proved that this is the case. It matters not: indeed, the extra spaciousness is entirely welcome; one has the impression of a broad river flowing naturally and confidently along. Eventually, after a superb traversal of the movement, Blomstedt reaches the closing section where he whips up the pace excitingly. I was mildly surprised to find that he’s among those conductors who slow up significantly for the chorale. As a general rule I prefer to hear this passage broadened only slightly. However, when played as it is here by the Gewandhausorchester the music sounds absolutely resplendent and even the mildest criticism is disarmed. Then Blomstedt and the orchestra bring the symphony to a thrilling conclusion. We don’t hear any applause but I bet that at the concerts themselves the audience were on their feet. This is a superb and profoundly satisfying account of the First Symphony and I’m so glad it has been preserved on disc.

Herbert Blomstedt was ninety-two at the time of these performances but you would never know, such is the energy of the music-making. Where his age does become a factor, I think, is in the sheer wisdom and depth of experience behind his conducting. With a magnificent orchestra to translate his vision of the music into sound, both the overture and the symphony are offered in performances of great distinction.

Engineer René Möller has preserved these performances is lovely, natural sound. There’s just the right amount of space around the instruments and Möller has managed to combine clarity and warmth of sound in ideal proportions.

I welcome this disc unreservedly and I look forward with keen anticipation to the rest of the cycle.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson

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