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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 73 [44:51]
Academic Festival Overture in C minor, Op 80 [9:58]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live October 2019, Gewandhaus, Leipzig
PENTATONE PTC5186851 [55:00]

One of my highlights on disc in 2020 was the release, towards the end of the year, of the first instalment of a live Brahms symphony cycle from Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (review). That distinguished recording of the First symphony promised much, and now here is the follow-up release.

Since listening to that Brahms recording, I have acquired the complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies which was made by Blomstedt and the LGO and which was so justly admired by my colleague Stephen Barber (review). One of many admirable features of that cycle – and it applies to these Brahms performances too – is that the violins are divided left and right, the basses are positioned next to the first violins, the cellos sit in the middle of the orchestra and the violas are positioned between the cellos and the second violins. That’s an arrangement I’ve come to love over the years, not just because listeners get the benefit of antiphonal violins but also because, just as importantly, the cellos and violas are at the heart of the orchestral sound. What I didn’t know, until I read it in the booklet accompanying Blomstedt’s Beethoven cycle, is that he specifically requested that the LGO adopted that layout when he became their music director in 1998. His successor, Riccardo Chailly, continued the practice when he took over in 2005 and nowadays, apparently, the orchestra even requires guest conductors to use this method of seating.

Blomstedt’s account of the Second symphony could scarcely begin more auspiciously. In the opening pages we hear a lovely, burnished orchestral sound; the phrasing is highly persuasive and there’s a becoming richness to the bass end of the spectrum. As if that were not enough to ‘hook’ the listener, Blomstedt’s pacing strikes me as well-nigh ideal; he allows the music exactly the right amount of space and in his hands Brahms’ ideas unfold very naturally. Transitions are expertly handled, as one would expect from a conductor of such vast experience. Though the performance is suitably relaxed it is by no means languid; there’s a strong sense of purpose and momentum, as for instance during the dotted-rhythm passage at 3:18. Blomstedt takes the repeat, which pleases me greatly. In the development section (from 10:31) I relished the rigour and energy that Blomstedt brings to the first three or four minutes. However, in a beautifully balanced view of the movement he ensures that the melancholic and lyrical sides of the music are given their due weight as well. The LGO is ideally suited to Brahms, and their expert playing – and Blomstedt’s scrupulous balancing – means that every musical strand registers with the listener. Fabulously played and wisely interpreted, this is a deeply satisfying performance of the first movement.

It was instructive to compare the way Blomstedt unfolded this movement with the recording made for Decca by Riccardo Chailly, his successor in Leipzig, in October 2012. I bought that set and shared the enthusiasm of my colleague, Simon Thompson for the cycle as a whole (review). The two conductors are like chalk and cheese, however, in their view of the first movement of the Second. Chailly is fleet and, taking the repeat as Blomstedt does, gets through the movement in 17:49 whereas Blomstedt takes 21:04. Do not be deceived by those timings: Blomstedt is more spacious than Chailly but he’s no sluggard; he just feels the music differently. I can appreciate both ways with the music. Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy greatly lean approaches to Brahms from such conductors as Sir Charles Mackerras (review), Sir John Eliot Gardiner (review). However, when I hear a recording such as this present Blomstedt version, it seems to me that a well-considered, mature performance by an orchestra with the tonal riches of the LGO and a conductor of Blomstedt’s wisdom takes some beating.

Blomstedt is just as successful in the Adagio non troppo. Once again, it seems to me that he consistently paces the music in an ideal fashion. The phrasing in the opening pages is richly romantic yet never remotely indulgent; the performance has an air of natural inevitability. Where required, such as at 4:04, the playing has all the muscularity that is needed. In short, everything is just right. The Allegretto grazioso movement is reminiscent of Brahms’ two orchestral Serenades, which is just what we hear in this performance. The LGO’s playing is wonderfully alert and every episode in the movement is delectably pointed. The finale is marked Allegro con spirito and this performance is indeed ‘con spirito’. This is a joyful, exuberant account of the music and throughout the movement Blomstedt demonstrates exemplary control, as well as great understanding in his variation of pulse. The last couple of minutes, from 8:09, are exultant.

This is one of the finest performances of Brahms’ Second symphony that I can recall hearing in years. At every turn Herbert Blomstedt and this superb orchestra reminded me why it’s my favourite Brahms symphony.

As a ‘filler’ we hear the Academic Festival Overture. (I’m mildly surprised that Pentatone place this last on the disc; surely it would have been preferable to use the overture to preface the symphony?) This isn’t Desert Island Brahms as far as I’m concerned but this spirited and splendid performance was one that I enjoyed very much. Perhaps because I so enjoyed it, I admired afresh the skill with which Brahms wove student songs into his score. Blomstedt maintains focus and momentum throughout the course of an excellent performance.

Engineer RenÚ M÷ller recorded the First symphony expertly and it’s no surprise, therefore, that he’s been just as successful on this occasion. The recording conveys the richness and tonal depth of the LGO and it also allows us to hear all the detail of Brahms’ scoring.

We’re now halfway through this Brahms symphony cycle and I think it can be safely said that this is shaping up to be one of the most significant additions to the Brahms discography in recent years. I await the next instalment with impatience.

John Quinn

Previous review: David McDade

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