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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 [50:07]
Tragic Overture [12:25]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live, 2019, Gewandhaus, Leipzig
PENTATONE PTC5186850 [62:32]

Herbert Blomstedt was 92 years old when he conducted the performances on this recording. I mention this fact, remarkable in itself, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s easy to forget it when you listen to this disc, so youthful, vigorous and agile is the music-making; and, secondly, while you don’t get to that age without seeing a few things, not even he has lived through a global pandemic like the one we’re going through now.

He alludes to this in his rather touching introductory booklet note when, writing both of Brahms and the players of the Gewandhausorchester, he says “Rarely have we needed this light more desperately than today, when the entire world risks to loose [sic] its soul. And when the soul is lost, we are truly lost…We will all carry on together. We are full of hope!”

He wrote that in June 2020, nearly a year after the Gewandhaus performances; but while he may have been writing after his Brahms was recorded, you would think that this majestic performance, which blazes with both hope and triumph, could have been created with the purpose of giving comfort to our troubled time. This is Brahms played by some of Europe’s finest musicians, conducted by a nonagenarian conductor who sounds as though he is at the peak of his powers.

So many orchestra have recently been making the case for pared-back, stripped-down Brahms that, as I have said before, that battle has surely now been won. Nowadays the act of performing Brahms on a full symphony orchestra with spacious tempi has become almost radical. However, this performance proves that not only does the older Brahms tradition still have life in it, but it can be as exciting and dynamic as anything played by smaller ensembles; perhaps even more so.

Blomstedt gets the first movement’s introduction exactly right: it has weight, and it’s on the slower side of “sustained”, but he doesn’t overdo the throbbing timpani accompaniment, so he manages just about the best of both worlds. The rocking wind theme that follows sounds fairly sweet, and the stings have laser-like focus as they recall the opening theme, giving way to a gorgeous, mahogany solo oboe line.

The main theme of the Allegro is a little slower than you'll get from Ticciati or Gardiner, but there is a grand sweep to it that I found completely convincing. It’s far from corpulent, though: listen, for example, to the amazing smile on the violin line as the music turns to the major, and the second subject proper provides an oasis of respite from the storm. However, the strings then bite into the ensuing triplet theme in a way that tightens the drama superbly, and this leads into a coiled spring of a development section. The crescendo that leads up to the recapitulation is perfectly timed and devastating in its fulfilment, the drums and brass weighty, but with the strings retraining their commanding air throughout. For information, Blomstedt takes the exposition repeat.

Blomstedt’s vision of the middle movements comes close to the old-fashioned idea of them as a coupling, but he doesn’t play them as twins. The second movement has a fierce beauty to it: this is not a respite from the drama so much as its continuation in a more lyrical form, with rich, flowing string playing and delicately shaded legatos from the winds (and the sweetest conceivable violin solo adds some lovely spice). If there is to be relief, then it comes in a gorgeously airy Allegretto, the breeze blowing through the clarinet theme and extending to the violins, who really bring the sun out in the gaily playful Trio.

The orchestral playing is utterly sensational throughout, though you’d expect that from the Gewandhaus, of course; one of the most venerable orchestras in Europe, and the oldest civic orchestra in the world. The string sound is like an encapsulation of the Austro-German tradition in one single place: in the first movement’s development section, for example, when the strings launch into their new theme, the violins sweep their way through it with an aristocratic air that combines total control with a magisterial self-possession. The big theme of the finale then swells and pulses in a way you'll only hear in Central Europe. Not only is the pacing perfect, but the melody doesn’t dominate the texture: instead you can hear each component flowing together like a river to the sea, enriching the experience of listening and making it seem like the culmination that it is. Rather oddly, Blomstedt seems to pull back the pace for the theme’s second appearance, which is slightly jarring, but when the string sound is so good I can forgive him.

The horns call to the other winds within the orchestral texture throughout the symphony, but then gleam out brilliantly in the finale’s heart-swelling Alphorn solo over a trombone accompaniment that feels like tectonic plates gently shifting. Those same trombones then give off an incandescent blaze in the coda’s peroration, by which time the symphonic argument has built up a nuclear energy all of its own. The injection of pace at 16:50 in the finale, when Blomstedt pulls out the final stops for the rush to the finish line, was so exciting that it made me get out of my seat.

In short, this Brahms 1 is brilliant. It is sensationally played, on a big old-school symphony orchestra, but there is still transparency and leanness in the texture so that everything is audible and there is never a hint of gloop. I’d take this over Ticciati or Gardiner, or even Harnoncourt, any day.

It helps that it is paired with an uncommonly energetic rendition of the Tragic Overture, so lithe, athletic and fast that you’d never suspect for an instant that it is conducted by a maestro in his nineties. There is a keen edge to the orchestral texture that makes this a real winner, and should serve as a firm riposte to any who think Brahms’ orchestral textures stodgy or his structures flabby.

Interestingly, this is both orchestra and conductor’s debut on this record label, and Pentatone have honoured them with demonstration quality sound, illuminated sensitively and blended fantastically, making the most of the sensational acoustic in the orchestra’s Leipzig home, surely the finest achievement the East German government ever managed.

There is word, on the Pentatone website, that this is to be the first part of a complete Brahms cycle from these artists. If that’s true then count me in for the rest.

Simon Thompson

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