Brahms: Brahms: Symphonies Nos 1-4

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Brahms: Symphonies Nos 1-4
PERFORMER: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/ David Zinman
CATALOGUE NO: RCA 88697933492

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Brahms had a close relationship with the musicians and landscape of Switzerland. He conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich on many occasions, usually including one of his Symphonies, so this new release has a long tradition behind it. These are splendid performances, passionately felt and never losing sight of the architecture. The orchestra under David Zinman is on top form. I like his choice of tempos – alert and dynamic throughout the fast movements, never too slumberous in the slow. The recording, too, is unusually well balanced, lending clarity to the subsidiary lines.
 
Symphony No. 1 is a very dramatic reading. No. 2 is relaxed yet with full weight given to the sombre undertones of the first two movements, and a real sense of rejoicing in the finale. The tragic waltz-rhythm developments in No. 3’s first movement are remorselessly propelled, and the slow movement is played with great beauty. No. 4 seems at first comparatively austere, but the performance grew on me.
 
There are so many top-notch versions that you don’t look for any new revelations in these works. Yet there is one passage in No. 1 – the lead-up to the first movement recapitulation – that struck me afresh. Its molten stream of fortissimo semiquavers in massed strings is played with precision and clarity, explosively heightening the tension at the crucial moment. I compared half a dozen other performances, by great names: in none of them is the string figuration much more than a whirling cloud. Everyone else is concentrating on the wind harmony and how it balefully shapes towards the cadence, but I’m sure Brahms meant the passage to be heard this way, with the strings driving the wind on. Hats off to Zinman. He doesn’t knock my favourite, Claudio Abbado, off his perch, but this certainly comes recommended. Calum MacDonald