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

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: WDR SO, Cologne/Semyon Bychkov
Rare indeed are the orchestras and conductors who can tell us anything new about the Brahms symphonies at this late hour. Indeed novelty is not what we require: we want the truths of these works expounded with cogency, ardour, total understanding and complete accuracy – and even that’s rare enough, in all conscience. The WDR SO is not a glossy top-rank orchestra but brings vast repertoire experience and utter competence to bear, while Semyon Bychkov impels it to some shining moments of dramatic intensity. His Brahms is a disciplined, no-nonsense symphonist whose Classical restraints increase the expressive pressure of the music’s emotional life. The tempos are satisfyingly brisk and focused, rejecting temptations to linger where the utterance is already expressive enough. While the First Symphony struck me as a perfectly acceptable but unremarkable reading, the polarisation of deep elegy and festive energy in the Second really catches fire, and the Third is also marvellously passionate account, evoking tragedy and regret. The Fourth, too, is excellent, with the first-movement recapitulation and coda thrillingly shaped and an impulsive drive to the scherzo.I found the discs had to be played at quite a high level to get the best out of the recording, and there were a few spots where ensemble was not ideally clear, but this is definitely a spirited set of performances that does these masterworks something like justice. Bychkov’s interpretations lack the wisdom and lyric richness of Abbado – still the clear first choice – or the sheer knowledge and total identification with the music displayed by Koussevitzky or Toscanini among past masters. I would probably reach for Kempe (Testament) and Barenboim (Erato) also before this new Avie set. But it’s a fine achievement nonetheless. Calum MacDonald