Brahms – Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: LPO
WORKS: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
PERFORMER: London PO/Vladimir Jurowski
CATALOGUE NO: LPO 0043

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 From the urgently pounding timpani at the start of the First Symphony, Vladimir Jurowski’s approach to Brahms makes exceptional sense. Instead of the familiar cultivation of rich, fat sound as a goal in itself, we have a Brahms that moves fluidly and sings in long lines.

It may well leave you wondering why so many modern Brahms performances move so doggedly, the feet apparently encased in mud. Here the cross-rhythms and syncopations bounce and spring – which is exactly what the articulation in the scores seems to call out for – rather than coagulate. 

Yet Jurowski has achieved this result without using period instruments or any obvious attempt at ‘historically informed’ practice. More importantly, lightening the touch doesn’t mean weakening the expressive intensity. The first movement of the First Symphony is true Sturm und Drang Brahms. Jurowski reminds us forcefully that the first movement theme was conceived by a young man very much under the spell of Schumann.

The introduction may have been conceived much later, but it too surges and strains forward, flowing with tragic inevitability into the Allegro. And the whole symphony continues unfolding in this impassioned, soaring and utterly unforced way, everything seeming to look forward to the moment in the finale where the mists clear and the solo horn is heard signalling from the heights.

Yet it can’t be stressed enough that the performance never feels rushed: the vitality springs authentically from the notes themselves. The word ‘refreshing’ hardly begins to describe it. To find something as thoroughly convincing as this I’d have to go back to George Szell, and the sound is definitely better here. 

In the first movement of Symphony No. 2 we have the same subtle expression, overarching elegance of line, rhythmic vitality, but beautifully tempered to the music’s gentler, more reflective character – it’s a long time since I’ve heard the second theme take flight like this.

Then in the middle two movements contrast is beautifully judged: the slow movement alternating between grave but supple eloquence in the first theme and lilting lightness in the second; the Allegretto grazioso a great deal more ‘gracious’ than we’re used to hearing these days.

John Eliot Gardiner seemed to be aiming for something very similar in his recent recording of the Second Symphony, but there the spark of life was only intermittent. It may be stretching credibility for some, but this is a recording to rank alongside the great Columbia/Bruno Walter. And again the insight and empathy are sustained to the end.

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If you can’t imagine Brahms ever being playful, go straight to the finale – a valuable reminder, among other positives, that Brahms revered Haydn. The live recording is every bit as well judged as in No. 1. Conductors, buy this and learn; the rest of us can just enjoy. Stephen Johnson