WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in C minor; Academic Festival Overture
PERFORMER: Houston SO/Christoph Eschenbach
CATALOGUE NO: VC 7 59223-2 DDD
‘Brahms, that old bore’, as Sir Thomas Beecham once famously described the composer. It should serve as a warning to those enticed into the warm, mellifluous embrace of Brahms’s symphonic world.
This First Symphony is not so much visionary as exemplary – Brahms was worried to death about picking up the mantle of Beethoven – and it can easily be dull. The defects in this performance are laid down in the opening bars. The pesante pounding of the double basses and timpani has been captured in mega-sound: the speakers shook and my windows rattled. But it sounded synthetic and devoid of the swirling drama that should grab you by the lapels and demand attention. The satiated feel of these first few bars pervades the rest of the performance.
It is closely measured, well-tailored, but lacking in spirit and any sense of discovery. The famous tune in the last movement that alludes so tantalisingly to Beethoven’s Ninth (‘Any ass can see that’, said Brahms) is sprightly but the passionato horn oration that precedes it is agonisingly slow.
The tempi are generally slow and rather luxuriant; when Eschenbach starts speeding towards the end of the symphony he leaves the brass gasping for breath on the sidelines. Much of the lack of interest in this recording can be attributed to the sound quality, which is very smooth but also unrealistic and colourless.
In particular, the engineers have gone for ultra-close microphones on the basses – hence the opulence of the opening bars – but later on you can hear all sorts of clicks and scratches from the bowing that would normally be masked by a more sensible perspective. Christopher Lambton