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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies & Serenades

Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 58 (1876) [43:10]
Symphony No 2 in D, Op 73 (1877) [46:04]
Symphony No 3 in F, Op 90 (1883) [33:17]
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98 (1885) [38:55]
Serenade No 1 in D, Op 11 (1860) [52:16]
Serenade No 2 in A, Op 16 (1860) [32:01]
Tragic Overture, Op 81 (1880) [13:13]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op 56a (1873) [19:02]
Netherlands PO/Jaap van Zweden (Sym 1, 3 & 4)
Netherlands Radio PO/Jaap van Zweden (Sym 2)
Dresden Philharmonic/Heinz Bongartz (Serenades)
Berlin Symphony/GŁnter Herbig (Overture, Variations)
rec. 1962-2002
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 96147 [5 CDs: 278:36]

The risk with this sort of almost-omnibus - and, no, you really can't say "omnibi" - is that the diversity of performers, venues, and recording techniques may yield extremely variable results.

To the extent any conductor can have earned himself a Brahms cycle amid today's recorded glut, Jaap van Zweden certainly has - but this isn't it. First of all, the recorded sound is beset by a cluttering resonance. This turns the C minor's busy activity monochromatic, despite the conductor's light, motile touch; some nervous playing in the finale's agitated passages hints at problems to come. The spacious D major offers fresh, vernal woodwinds and a lovely warmth in the "Lullaby" third theme, though the finale's first tutti is slapdash. The latter two symphonies, unfortunately, revert to the dull, unvaried patina of the First, with some oozy, underarticulated string playing and patches of loose co-ordination among the moving parts. The finale of the F major suffers some blunt, thuddy landings, and the themes are occasionally obscured. Tuttis throughout tend to thickness.

To be sure, van Zweden invests the music with lightness and the right sort of surge - save for the sticky reprise in the C minor's finale - and his insights can be fascinating. I like the way he pulls the short motifs of the E minor Symphony's first movement into longer units, even if he relies on conspicuous louder-softer contrasts in the process. The oboe-led chorale in the C minor's Andante sostenuto is serene. An undercurrent of mystery sets up the recap in the D Major's finale. But such details don't make up for problematic execution and recording. (The estimable Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in the D major is more assured than the overtaxed, under-rehearsed Netherlands Philharmonic, with its wheezy winds, in the others.) Perhaps the conductor can rerecord these symphonies in New York, post-pandemic.

The more distanced pickup for the 1962 recordings of the Serenades aptly suits the traditional homogenized East German orchestral sonority. The more recessed image may at first seem underpowered - the D major's opening horn solo sounds reticent - but, as the ear gradually adjusts, characterful wind soli come easily to the fore. In that score, Bongartz's leadership is forthright and musical, though the chipper fourth movement isn't quite my idea of a Menuetto, and the firmly shaped finale feels stodgy. In the A major, the lyric themes flow, and the cheerful finale is buoyant. But the woodwinds are having an off day; the bassoons and the oboe have their creaky patches, while the principal clarinet is occasionally bashful.

The recorded perspective is even more backward in the two GŁnter Herbig performances. The resonance falls easily on the ear and never obscures detail - good job - but the woodwinds are recessed and the sonority doesn't expand in the climaxes. Still, Herbig's purposeful Tragic Overture holds together well. In the Variations, the gentle opening is pastoral rather than formal, the Grazioso (disc 5, track 9) rocks like a lullaby, and the final variation begins with dignified gravity.

This patchy collection might have been useful in pre-streaming days; some might still find it so. But could Brilliant Classics not find a suitable Academic Festival Overture to round things off?

Stephen Francis Vasta

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