Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Haydn Variations. Symphonies Nos 2 & 3

LABELS: PentaTone
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Haydn Variations. Symphonies Nos 2 & 3
PERFORMER: Pittsburgh SO/Marek Janowski
CATALOGUE NO: PentaTone PTC 5186 307. PentaTone PTC 5186 308 Both discs hybrid CD/SACD
Marek Janowski’s Brahms is refreshingly balanced and free of eccentricities. As with his earlier 1980s cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on ASV, he doesn’t appear to have any ideological axe to grind, neither opting for the kind of over-inflated gestures and extreme fluctuations of tempos that marred the recent version of the First from Christian Thielemann, nor indulging in the more Spartan texturing and phrasing favoured by period instrument conductors. Adopting reasonably swift tempos in the First Symphony’s outer movements, Janowski generates considerable rhythmic incisiveness in this live performance, though the luxuriant SACD recording and warm acoustics of Heinz Hall tend to create a somewhat muddy orchestral texture. For all its energy and drive, both interpretation and playing seem a bit earthbound, lacking the kind of rugged intensity and visceral excitement that Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic bring to the music in their DG recording. The Haydn Variations, again distinguished by some beautiful moments (for example the delightfully phrased Seventh Variation), is musically satisfying if hardly remarkable.The Second and Third symphonies are much more impressive. In the expansive first movement of the Second (played here with the exposition repeat), Janowski manages to maintain sufficient momentum without in any way sacrificing lyrical warmth, the only damp squib being a slightly unconvincing return of the first idea at the end of a highly-charged development section. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra responds with more subtle playing than in the First Symphony, relishing both the inner movements’ chamber-music like textures and the unbuttoned exuberance of the Finale which culminates brilliantly in an exciting coda. In Symphony No. 3 Janowski successfully marries the impetus and passion of the opening with moments of lyrical repose – a feature that is carried through the rest of the work. Overall this performance is almost as compelling as that of the Second, though in the Finale I found the dynamic levels in the opening and closing sections a little too forward and lacking in mystery. Despite the obvious advantages of outstanding SACD sound, such details make me reluctant to recommend the present release, admirable as it is, ahead of such strong competitors as Abbado, Haitink and Chailly.