BRAHMS: Symphonies: No. 1 in c, Op. 68; No. 2 in D, Op. 73; Tragic Overture, Op. 81; Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a – London Sym. Orch./ Valery Gergiev – LSO Live LSO0733 (2 SACDs), 125:18 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The music world anxiously awaited, even demanded, a first symphony from Brahms; but he hesitated, offering a few symphonic style works like the Serenades instead, for a long time. Finally, at age 43, and after wrestling with the First Symphony for 14 years, produced a piece of mammoth proportions obviously meant to quite self-consciously extend the Beethovenian line. And even though the theme of the last movement, so recognizably similar to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (“any idiot can see that”, Brahms is reported to have said), it is different enough in tone and particularly in context that the spirit of Brahms’s work comes through in a completely different way. Brahms wrote no humanistic triumph in his First, but he did show that the symphony was indeed possible after Beethoven, which many Romantic composers were not only doubting but actively seeking to destroy.
With the Second Symphony Brahms enters into another world altogether. Though it was started only one year after the First the world it inhabits is entirely different. Gone is the ghost of Beethoven, and enter the spirit of geniality, the Vienna of the landler and the lilting waltz, yet still permeated with harmonic richness and inherent drama that is always present in everything Brahms ever wrote. It takes a different approach to do this work justice, which is maybe why so few conductors really understand and “get” how different one’s attitude to each of the symphonies has to be. With Gergiev, so surprisingly effective in his recent Wagner work, the jury is still out—I will have to hear the sequel to this album, which is the first of a complete set of the symphonies.
These are basically slow readings of these pieces, not out of bounds by any means—think Bernstein and especially Maazel, whose timings are quite near to Gergiev—but also very richly presented, the LSO showing a side of themselves that we don’t often hear. Gergiev tends to luxuriate, hardly a sign of musical wantonness as so many conductors do the same, but also takes a lot of tempo liberties as well, suggested by his spring-to-the-finish in the last bars of the Second Symphony. However, he does understand the deliberateness and importance of setting the proper stage in the opening of Op. 68, and the middle movements of each symphony are appropriately full-bodied and yet serenade-like in many ways, letting the bookends provide most of the gravitas.
John Sunier was impressed to a point with the first release of Janowski’s series on Pentatone with the Pittsburgh Symphony, while John Nemaric was positively gushing over Volume 2 in this same series, with Symphonies 2 & 3. I know the latter but not the former, and can concur with the virtues Nemaric mentions, though I don’t know if I like Janowski’s D-major as well as that of Gergiev—time will tell, especially when the second disc comes out on LSO Live. No. 3 is the test, the hardest to pull off for any conductor. Janowski does well with it, and the sound is good, but the performance not as convincing as Walter, or perhaps even Levine on DGG. I will wait with baited breath to hear what Gergiev does with it.
The Haydn Variations almost play themselves by any competent orchestra, and though Walter again holds the standard, this one is very good, as is the axiomatic Tragic Overture. The sound keeps getting better and better the longer LSO Live goes at it, this latest being a far cry from some of the more claustrophobic releases in the early days. Gergiev continues to impress me when I least expect it; Volume 2 should be the clincher, but we shall see.