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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No 2 Op 73 (1877) [44:51]
Academic Festival Overture Op 80 (1880) [9:58]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live Gewandhaus, Leipzig, October 2019. DDD.
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
PENTATONE PTC 5186 851 [55:00]

To begin a review by paying attention to a CD’s coupling might seem a little like damning it with faint praise. In partial mitigation, I would like to point out that I did once buy a CD just for a performance of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture. (In case you are interested, it was Koussevitsky and yes it was worth it.) Written in 1880 to thank Breslau University for honouring the composer with an honorary doctorate, the Academic Festival Overture should be a forgettable piece of occasional music, a pot pourri of student songs thrown together for a one-off event. It is, of course, anything but and this new CD would also be worth getting just for this overture alone. Happily, the rest of the music is just as good.

The recording quality is almost the ideal for Brahms. Clear enough to hear little details like the tuba about two minutes in (I’d never noticed it before but Brahms the master orchestrator knew exactly what he was doing, adding just the right amount of gravitas before the fun really starts) but rich enough for the big climaxes to offer us great washes of glorious sound. Virtually every bar brings new delights – the way the woody bassoons hand the baton to the tangy oboes at 4:09 is a total joy and when the same tune comes back on the strings seconds later it becomes joy unconfined.

The Gewandhaus have, of course, been involved in one of the most celebrated Brahms symphony cycles of recent times under the direction of Ricardo Chailly, in 2013 on Decca (4787471, 3 CDs: Recording of the Month - review with earlier catalogue number). At the time this seemed a revelatory set with faster speeds and lighter textures than had become traditional. Since then, Ticciati’s equally celebrated traversal of the symphonies, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Linn (CKD601, 2 CDs - review - review), has taken the process one step further but, listening to this disc, I found myself wondering how much the Chailly set was about the conductor and how much the traditions of the orchestra. Certainly, this recording has the same pellucid, glowing orchestral sound. I recall hearing the Gewandhaus live during the 80s under Kurt Masur playing the Schumann 4th symphony and marvelling at the transparency of the textures in what had previously seemed to me a rather stodgy score.

They are again on top form in the symphony. In outline, this is essentially the same performance as that recorded by the same performers in 2015 on Querstand. Perhaps it is just a matter of the difference the luminous recording makes, perhaps it is a deepening of the conductor’s interpretation, but this new version is an improvement on what was already a top notch account. Blomstedt has recently seemed to enter that almost miraculous stage right at the end of a conductor’s career when everything feels right and somehow inevitable. I found the first volume of what I understand to be a complete set of Brahms symphonies, featuring the First symphony, was, if anything, even better than this current disc – review review. I was similarly impressed, much to my surprise, by a live Mahler 9 with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on Accentus. John Quinn reviewing it on these pages seemed equally impressed. (See also review by Dan Morgan.)

Blomstedt is slower than Chailly or Ticciati in the first movement but he still retains a 3 in a bar lilt which makes the music dance gently. He is certainly quicker than Bruno Walter in his own Indian Summer with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (19075923242, 77 CDs, or Walter conducts Brahms 88843072592, 5 CDs, around 18). Walter’s is a deliciously autumnal performance but his tempo is closer to an andante than the Allegro non troppo marking in the score. Blomstedt’s speed here is as traditional as his approach to the symphony as a whole. Throughout, he is not concerned with making big interpretive points but time after time he gets the choices, big and small, spot on. There is a calm solemnity at times in this opening movement that is just awe inspiring.

Brahms wrote his second symphony on holiday in Portschach in 1877. It has always seemed a great mystery to me that so many commentators describe this work as if it were straightforwardly sunny and carefree. Right at the start, the trombones darken the texture and these darker, more troubled undercurrents are what distinguish the great performances from the also rans. The climax of the first movement features a fairly startling build up of dissonances for a supposedly clear skies holiday jaunt. Blomstedt paces this build-up with inexorable patience.

The slow movement is probably the darkest in the Brahms symphonies and it needs to sound that way if the symphony as a whole is going to work its full magic. Monteux with the VPO in serviceable early Decca stereo from 1959 (currently sounding very well on Beulah – review) is my benchmark here and Blomstedt stands up very well to the comparison. What both conductors understand is that Brahms is as much about the horizontal weaving of melodic strands as it is about the vertical harmony. Treated as blocks of chords, Brahms quickly becomes lumpy and four-square. Treated horizontally, as Blomstedt does so lovingly here, the melodies and sub melodies really sing. Blomstedt is not an interventionist conductor but that doesn’t mean that this performance lacks passion. As with another great Brahms conductor, Bruno Walter, the approach relies on the melodies to generate the emotion in an essentially lyrical view of the music. Others will prefer a more dramatic approach but I feel that Blomstedt takes us deep into the heart of Brahms.

Much the same virtues inform the last two movements. Even at a relatively brisk pace, the finale always sounds like the musicians have space and time to articulate the music which too often can descend into a gabble. Karajan in 1978 is a prime example of this danger, nearly derailing even the mighty BPO in their pomp.

I see no reason to turn this review into a beauty parade. It is one of the clearest signs of a great piece of music that there can be so many different ways of playing it. I am happy to welcome this new recording into the company of the best of the past – Walter, Jochum and Monteux – as well as the present – conductors like Chailly and Ticciati. It certainly deserves its place amongst that elite group. Above else, this is a deeply satisfying listen and I am thrilled at the prospect of Nos 3 and 4 still to come.

David McDade



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