Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Tragic Overture

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WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Tragic Overture
PERFORMER: LSO/Bernard Haitink
If you think that these are two unedited performances, you’d be wrong. In fact several concerts were involved, which isn’t uncommon nowadays: but if two performances are so similar that they can be edited together, where’s the uniqueness and risk of the live event? That’s the problem I have with the First Symphony in particular: it’s utterly reliable and does all the right things, but its feet remain firmly on the ground. The first movement begins at a suitably broad tempo, and the relationship with the main Allegro is well judged, but there’s sometimes a tendency to sit down rather than get on with things. It’s not just a matter of tempo: as Furtwängler showed, it’s possible to increase the tension while slowing down, but it needs really intense playing right through the note, and the bright sound of the LSO tends to have force rather than weight. This affects the slow movement, where a natural warmth never really emerges, despite some fine solo playing (though the violin is far too prominent). Things perk up in the Allegretto, with nicely contrasted main and trio sections, and in the finale, where the flow from one tempo to another is impeccably judged. But I still miss the inner musical life in the phrasing which comes naturally to Wand, Jochum and other older conductors of the German school. If you want distinction at budget price, though, look to Boult’s 1972 recording – as unfussy as Haitink’s, but with a sure sense of the longer line and span of the music. Martin Cotton