Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Ondine
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: CO of Europe/Paavo Berglund
CATALOGUE NO: ODE 990-2T
So much Brahms orchestral playing these days is blandly beautiful (or just plain bland) that it’s a relief to hear performances with intelligent attitude like these – even if this isn’t ultimately the Brahms recorded cycle I’d want to live with. The playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is splendidly alert, energetic and disciplined, and the use of a relatively small string section allows more of the wind writing to come through clearly – a gain which strongly outweighs the loss of plush, big-band string tone. Berglund has clearly approached this music with an open, unprejudiced mind. He’s certainly no slave to tradition. The customary heavy slow tread at the opening of the First Symphony is abandoned (Brahms’s ‘un poco sostenuto’ is highly ambiguous) in favour of a more forward-surging tempo; the result is less statuesque, but much more urgent and impassioned. Similarly Berglund rejects the customary broadening at the triumphant return of the chorale towards the end of the finale (Brahms doesn’t indicate any change of tempo) – and it works impressively.

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There will be fewer surprises in the other three symphonies, though the clear-cut freshness of the phrasing and the clear, carefully placed accents (well caught by the recordings) won’t let the ear wander easily. In the end I found Berglund’s Brahms too stern, too acerbic to recommend as a repeatable listening experience on CD – though in concert these performances would surely challenge and refresh even the most jaded ears. If you must have all the symphonies under one conductor, then Günter Wand with the NDR Symphony Orchestra exhibits all Berglund’s freshness and intelligence but with much more tenderness and sensuous warmth. Stephen Johnson