Brahms: Symphony No. 3; Serenade No. 2

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 3; Serenade No. 2
PERFORMER: LSO/Bernard Haitink
Bernard Haitink directs a really beautiful performance of the Second Serenade: his tempos are well-chosen (with a particularly sprightly finale) and the playing, incisive and poetic, is very well balanced. It’s easy for the wind-heavy textures to thicken up: here they are exquisitely delineated, every detail audible. A delight – the piece is still not very frequently recorded, and this seems to me a new benchmark, superior to his previous account with the Concertgebouw. The Third Symphony, though, is surely for Haitink enthusiasts only. One would be hard put to point to any particular failing in the performance – though the tempos throughout strike me as slightly stodgy – but it never really catches fire. Even the recorded sound has less bloom than in the Serenade. The impression is of an objective, matter-of-fact view of the music, but the result drains Brahms’s warmest and most colourful symphony of much of its power. It goes without saying that the playing is excellent: the LSO can probably play the Brahms symphonies in its collective sleep, and perhaps the trouble is that this is what Haitink has allowed the players to do in this case. As an interpretation it seems to me inferior to his earlier Boston Symphony recording on Philips. There are so many fine competing versions that any new one has to fight more strongly than this for space. Abbado still strikes me as probably the best of the modern versions, with Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony (Erato) a close second; among historical recordings Koussevitzky’s live 1946 concert performance (Music & Arts) is as good a reminder as any of how this masterpiece should be treated. Calum MacDonald