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
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
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), 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
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. I was similarly impressed, much to my surprise, by a live Mahler 9 with
the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on Accentus. John Quinn
it on these pages seemed equally impressed. (See also
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
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