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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]

I hate to sound as if I'm jumping on the bandwagon, but it's time for me to throw in my lot with my colleagues David and John by welcoming warmly this second instalment in Herbert Blomstedt’s Leipzig Brahms cycle. Part one was one of my discs of 2020, and I give this one two thumbs up, too.

At the heart of its success is the gorgeously balanced sound of the Gewandhausorchester, who can rarely have sounded better than they are at the moment. Strings, winds and brass present as different components of an organic whole, with each part feeding the other as a part of the symphony's success. You get that right from the opening, as the horns seem to proceed from the cellos’ opening statement like an extension of their voice, with the ensuing violins radiating sunlight before the chocolate warmth of the violas shines through in the second subject. Dark basses underpin the drama of the development, and when the trombones emerge from the sound picture it's as a way of preparing for the climax that's about to appear.

Blomstedt never sounds as though he's doing very much in this opening movement, but that's meant as praise; his speeds are natural, and he allows the whole structure to unfold in its own organic way; there is no undue interference or the feeling that a concept is being imposed. The only part of the first movement where there's a little manipulation comes in the coda, with some delicate spotlighting of the (shiver-inducing) horn solo, while the subsequent strings sound utterly delightful.

The slow movement’s main theme unfolds with smiling seriousness, and it sounds sensational on the Leipzig strings, but it pivots around a cauldron of drama in the middle, and the movement's structural integrity sounds utterly convincing. The third movement is full of breezy charm, while the finale's quiet opening explodes into one of the most ebullient realisations of this music that I've heard in years. It's light-hearted, with the quality of a dance, but with enough weight to give it its due place in a symphonic finale. The sense of building momentum in the final moments is tremendous, as is the sense of celebration as the music gallops over the finish line.

The Academic Festival Overture is a nice filler, too. The opening bustles amiably become the choir of trumpets at 1:39 that sound closer to transcendence than anything in this work deserves. The sunny bonhomie of the rest sounds terrific as the orchestra jollies its way through the array of student tunes, climaxing in a Gaudeamus igitur that sounds like a proper culmination.

As with part one, the recording is excellent, as balanced and proportioned as the orchestral sound itself, allowing the music to breathe effectively. Furthermore, it's live, but there isn't a hint of audience noise. The only cause for complaint is the short running time; is it really acceptable to charge a price for less than an hour's music these days?

I've made my peace with that, though. This disc is more proof that big-boned symphonic Brahms has definitely not gone out of fashion. In fact, Blomstedt’s Brahms cycle is shaping up very nicely indeed.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: David McDade ~ John Quinn ~ Geoffrey Molyneux



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