Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Academic Festival Overture

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ALBUM TITLE: Brahms Orchestral Music
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Academic Festival Overture
PERFORMER: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557428


Of Brahms’s First Symphony, as of copious standard repertoire, the catalogue is burdened with many decent but unnecessary recordings. A good budget-price version, however, carries its own justification: the firsttime buyer doesn’t necessarily require ultimate illumination, simply a committed and reliable interpretation that never plays the music false. And this is precisely what Marin Alsop, previously known to me principally for her expertise in American repertoire, has achieved. There’s much to admire here: the brisk drama she brings to the first movement (while observing, as has happily become the norm, the exposition repeat), her fine generation of tension on the way to the recapitulation; the sympathy and intimacy with which she treats the inner movements. In the finale, the ‘great tune’ is beautifully delivered at its first appearance, the tempo deceptively relaxed, the leonine strength no more than implied until it is needed in the dramatic sequels. Though I wouldn’t quite place Alsop on a level with Abbado, say, for sheer expressive juice, this seems to me an altogether finer Brahms No. 1 than Naxos’s previous version from Alexander Rahbari and the Belgian Radio PO. In general effect Alsop’s approach somewhat reminds me of Bruno Walter’s classic version (Sony), and I wouldn’t have complained if it were a full-price entrant in the lists. As it is, anyone needing a first-rate budget Brahms First may snap it up with confidence. There’s nothing routine about the overtures, either: the Tragic has plenty of fire and atmosphere, while the Academic works up a fairly bacchic merriment. Calum MacDonald