Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Hungarian Dances Nos 2, 4-9

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Symphony No. 4; Hungarian Dances Nos 2, 4-9
PERFORMER: London PO/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570233
This concluding release in Marin Alsop’s Brahms symphonies cycle for Naxos has all the virtues of its predecessors. It’s a rhythmically taut, finely structured reading with plenty of dynamism and thrust, but giving full rein to the work’s deep elegiac aspects and darker shadings. Alsop shapes the first movement, taken if anything rather briskly, with a firm grip, and she projects the finale’s dynamism as well as its sense of fateful inevitability to perfection. The Andante emerges with resplendent poetry, the heart-easing second subject treated with especial sumptuousness on its climactic reprise. The LPO is on top form, and the recording is admirably spacious and beautifully balanced.

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All in all, then, this is the best new budget-price Brahms 4 for a long time, and Alsop’s cycle as a whole, despite my reservations about her No. 3, is by any measure an impressive achievement. But the competition in this Symphony is legion and includes many classic performances. Where Abbado, Blomstedt, Dohnányi, Karajan, Kleiber, Koussevitzky, Walter et al have trod, any new contender must have something special to contribute. The fiercely passionate Carlos Kleiber remains the benchmark for me. Alsop is not yet quite in that league, but she clearly feels the music intensely and does it complete justice, which is quite enough to be going on with.

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In an imaginative coupling, which certainly enhances the disc’s uniqueness, Alsop conducts the seven numbers from Book I of the Hungarian Dances in a specially commissioned orchestration by Peter Breiner. These are enjoyable and idiomatic – I especially relished the soulful string tones and chirpy woodwind of No. 4, in which Breiner introduces a new counterpoint in the da capo. Calum MacDonald