Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Tragic Overture & Symphony No. 2; Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Hanssler
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms: Symphonies
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Tragic Overture & Symphony No. 2; Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a
PERFORMER: SWR SO, Baden-Baden & Freiburg/Michael Gielen
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.134 & CD 93.135
Michael Gielen’s reputation is first and foremost as a conductor of 20th-century and contemporary music, but of course he has the standard repertoire well under his baton, and at the helm of the SWR Baden/Freiburg orchestra, whose permanent guest conductor he is,

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he proves himself an efficient,

no-nonsense Brahmsian; and more than that. His First Symphony and Tragic Overture are virile and disciplined, rhythmically dynamic, superbly paced. Gielen’s taut, thrusting style well suits the moody magnificence of the Symphony’s outer movements; the inner two are more routine, and a certain lack of lyricism cheats this passionate score of its full human warmth. For a performance nearer the ideal you still have to go to Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic, though Marin Alsop’s recent version with the Bournemouth Symphony on Naxos stands up well at bargain price.

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By contrast, there’s no lack of warmth, though sometimes an unusual sobriety, in Gielen’s treatment of the more genial Second Symphony and Haydn Variations. He’s extremely responsive to the deep vein of elegy that snakes its way through the symphony’s first two movements, and his treatment of the Adagio non troppo’s twilight effect is among the most refined and atmospheric I’ve heard in recent years, beautifully and sensitively phrased and with ideal instrumental balance. The finale is a shade short on dionysiac impetus, but overall this is a very fine reading indeed, with some superb individual contributions from horn, flute and oboe players. The sound, too, is superior to the other CD: the performances on the Symphony No. 1 disc date from 1995, whereas No. 2 is from ten years later, and the difference is palpable. Here again Abbado remains the benchmark for me, but Gielen is a very strong contender. His noble account of the Haydn Variations (recorded in 1996), which seems to have been conceived from first bar to last in a single inevitable sweep, is also a cut well above the ordinary. Calum MacDonald