BRAHMS: “The Symphonies” – Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Andris Nelsons – BSO Classics 1701/03, 3 discs, 178:43 (5/26/17) ****:
A bracing addition to an already rich field.
The Brahms symphonies are, without a doubt, among the masterpieces of the genre; filled with the master’s characteristics superb orchestrations, straight-forward but lovely harmonies and beautiful memorable melodies. They, therefore, have an equally well known array of recorded performances; hundreds in fact, including several renowned renditions by the venerable Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Interestingly, the BSO has not issued a spate of recordings of the whole four symphonies as a set; only ones by Erich Leinsdorf in the 1960s and that of Bernard Haitink from the early1990s being the only ones I am aware of.
This new set by present music director Andris Nelsons is a bit bold and bracing. Just the opening of the first Symphony in c-minor and the opening of the Symphony No. 4 in e-minor illustrate a gutsier, more “articulated” vision of these works which holds true for the second and third as well. I was thinking the orchestra sounds almost “Wagnerian” in spots with very precise uses of attack and silence; but we know Brahms, himself, would have disdained such an analogy.
There are, for me, two main ‘take-aways’ from Nelsons’s vision of these masterpieces. First, some of the tempi and much of the “force” within these works is, indeed, a bit more pronounced than what one might usually hear. Conductors occasionally try so hard to focus on the reserved, cerebral ‘autumnal’ aspects of later Brahms, in particular, that his music can accidentally sound too held back; too sedate. Andris Nelsons successfully finds the angst in that conflicted fourth Symphony and the restlessness of the First as well as the content and rays of sunshine to be found in the Second and Third. The moods are clear and the dynamics, attacks and phrasing are very pronounced. The vintage Erich Leinsdorf set is not quite the ‘opposite’ vision of Nelsons’ but it emphasizes long lines and the clearly tranquil beauty to be found in Brahms’ slow movements throughout. A bit of Nelsons’ iterations reminded me of a couple of fairly ‘meaty’ performances I heard with Solti and Chicago many years ago. Nelsons’ approach is, for me, bracing, envigorating and a bit surprising.
The other thing that caught my attention was that, to be honest, I have not heard the Boston Symphony sound this good and their recordings this attention getting in awhile. The BSO is still one of this country’s top orchestras, in the same historical conversation as the orchestras of New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. Over the past thirty years or so, “how good” Boston is /was compared to some of the ‘new power’ groups—such as those from Los Angeles and Seattle—has generated quite a discussion. To some extent, the role of the BSO in the post-Ozawa scene (who is not a Brahms specialist) varied from conductor to conductor and from one recording to another.
Andris Nelsons enjoys a much deserved international reputation, as he is also the director of the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. He also recently signed a substantial extension in Boston, which will keep him as their music director through 2021-2022. Having heard some of his other work and, now, this very bracing and exciting rendition of the Brahms Symphonies makes me anxious for his next recordings with the BSO as well as makes me think it—if one assumes that the BSO needed a spark—here it is and it is very welcome indeed!