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

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: NDR SO/Günter Wand
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 63348 2
Wand, rather than playing it safe as he approaches his tenth decade, retains a strong belief in live performance, a fact confirmed by this release of Brahms symphonies recorded in Hamburg’s Musikhalle between 1995 and 1997. Three performances on consecutive nights of each piece gave the producer something to work with, but one cannot explain away these impeccable performances by studio trickery. And it’s not just that the NDR SO doesn’t make mistakes: from the First Symphony – with hauntingly plaintive oboe in the Andante, strong, pure-toned horn in the final movement – to the last, its togetherness, accuracy and musical sense are never-failing.

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If Wand’s interpretations are likely to be seen as traditional, it is in the best sense of fidelity to the score and a quiet dedication to producing unflashy performances which aspire only to reveal Brahms’s music. The Third Symphony exemplifies this, Wand’s phrasing – especially right at the end in an enchantingly realised return to the work’s opening F major – capturing all the piece’s wistfulness yet not missing a dramatic trick. The Second, too, is memorable for its well-honed shape, working its way from a dignified, relaxed opening to a glowing climax. Another meticulous set is Charles Mackerras’s with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from 1997. The approach is rather different, employing certain 19th-century performance practices and a smaller orchestra, and including the alternative version of the First Symphony’s second movement. The results are more light-textured and breezy than Wand, but just as persuasive.