Brahms: Symphony No.1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Tragic Overture; Variations on a theme by Haydn; Academic Festival Overture

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Symphony No.1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Tragic Overture; Variations on a theme by Haydn; Academic Festival Overture
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Daniel Barenboim
CATALOGUE NO: 4509-94817-2 DDD
Barenboim has long delayed recording a Brahms cycle, no doubt wisely: there are too many superficial competitors around. The Chicago SO plays the symphonies sufficiently often under his baton, and is clearly shaped to his will; the result is a strong, impressive set. Barenboim’s Brahms is dark, dynamic, strongly driven, sometimes at the expense of the more lyrical moments – though Symphony No. 2, usually treated as the lyrical, relaxed one, benefits from this approach, which stresses the tragic undertones of its first two movements.

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The big sonata movements are always well-shaped, their architecture vast but never obtrusive: Barenboim can begin in almost matter-of-fact fashion and work from severe logic to boiling climaxes, as in the first movements of Symphonies Nos 1 and 4 and the finales of Nos 2 and 3. Occasionally his taste for the dramatic stumbles into solecism: the theatrical crescendo in the striding chordal passage towards the end of No. 4’s Scherzo, for example, in clear defiance of Brahms’s ff sempre marking!

Inner movements, though always elegantly done, are sometimes short on reflection and intimacy; the Andante of No. 4 is reposeful but surprisingly cool (in fact Barenboim’s tempi are on the brisk side throughout.

By contrast the analogous movement of No. 1 derives an almost sinister air from the dark gloss of the Chicago strings. The clear but cavernous acoustic of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall favours Barenboim’s approach, producing a sound both granitic and transparent.

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The set is nicely packaged, but each disc is short measure – it would surely have been possible to fit this repertoire onto three instead of four. Calum MacDonald