BRAHMS: Symphony 1 in C minor; Begrabnisgesang, Op. 13; Schicksalslied, Op. 54; MENDELSSOHN: Mitten wir im Leben sind, Op. 23 No. 3 – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/The Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner – Soli Deo Gloria

by | Nov 5, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Symphony 1 in C minor; Begrabnisgesang, Op. 13; Schicksalslied, Op. 54; MENDELSSOHN: Mitten wir im Leben sind, Op. 23 No. 3 – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/The Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner – Soli Deo Gloria SDG 702 – 75:11; Performance ***** Sound *** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

The mainstay of this disc is undoubtly Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) venerable Symphony No. 1. At the present time there are no less than 170 recordings available in the market this being the last one to appear. Brahms and also Mendelssohn (see track listing bellow) are given here the full Gardiner treatment: period instruments and concomitant period instrument playing, and above all the (almost) absence of legato. Arguably Brahms’ symphonic music is mostly played today with an obvious emphasis on uninflected and continuous legato, Wagner called this practice “endless melos” but this is not the case here.

Gardiner and his now familiar period orchestra achieve with their performance of the first symphony a striking, almost pungent clarity in the realization of the orchestral textures with their phrase articulation. It is as clear, transparent, lucid and unromantic as you can possible get in a performance of a pivotal work that has for a long time been realized as the epitome of Germanic melos. This clarity allows the symphony’s musical structure to come through loud and clear to create pungent, almost never-heard harmonies for a brave and exciting performance. There is no dark, somber brass and woodwinds resting on any heavy, melodramatically warm foundation of strings as it is normally the case. Instead we find clear and transparent execution that not only projects color but injects unsurpassed life on a rich score that most of the time is obscured by that hyperbolic “melos” of robust structures that most conductors insist Brahms is all about.

Gardiner emulates the classical indications of Brahms well beyond Toscanini,  Markevitch and Steinberg’s stylish performances although this is not a romantic symphony running wild by any means. The innocent sound concentrates on the beauty of the phrasing and what the notes have to say for a purer “classical” sound replete of subtle colorations from left to right and from back to front, from the brasses and woodwinds to the string choir. Gardiner’s is an optimistic performance of an optimistic Brahms and although there is no obvious program in this music the most obvious feeling is one of optimism thanks to the enlightened approach. It is just as commendable the pairing of this symphony with three other choral works which in a way anticipate Brahms’ symphonic stance. Gardiner’s performance compares well against those heavy leaden interpretations exemplified by the likes of Furtwangler, Karajan, Böhm or Bernstein. He give us a fresh new look into an old symphonic workhorse while in the process all sounds new as if it was the first time we heard it. In this aspect Gardiner’s realization is superlative and demands a listening.

However, this is a grand symphony that also  demands hi-res surround sound to raise above the common denominator with Janowski’s on Pentatone’s SACD, Bosch’s on Coviello SACD and Norrington’s on Hänssler DVD the most obvious extant examples. This Soli Deo Gloria regular Red Book CD recording is not hampered by the usual flatness and/or compression, and to some extent the artistry of the performance compensates for the lack of a better hi-res surround sound. I should also mention that Soli Deo Gloria is Gardiner’s own label.

Final words: highly recommended disc as far as artistic performance but Soli Deo Gloria should have done a better job with the sound. Obviously high-res SACD is the answer for this sort of recordings, the technology is readily available and it should be used, especially on a recording that otherwise could very well have been a reference for the ages.

TrackList:
T1: BRAHMS – Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13
T2: MENDELSSOHN – Mitten wir im Leben sind, Op. 23/3
T3: BRAHMS – Schicksalslied, Op. 54
T4-7: BRAHMS – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

— John Nemaric

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