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Brahms – Symphonies Nos 1-4 (Vienna Symphony)

Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Philippe Jordan (Wiener Symphoniker)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Symphonies Nos 1-4
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
Wiener Symphoniker WS021   161:31 mins (2 discs)

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This parting release of Philippe Jordan’s six-year conductorship of Vienna’s ‘other’ orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, comes with a modicum of sales talk. The string body, Jordan tells us, has been reduced to the size Mendelssohn and Schumann would have known, to achieve a clearer, lighter balance with the winds, in pursuit of Brahms’s lyrical ‘inner song’ – that sense of enlarged chamber music – that only players steeped in Viennese tradition can fully deliver. In fact, there have already been distinguished chamber orchestra-style releases of the symphonies under Paavo Berglund and Andrew Manze long since, and the VSO was not actually founded until three years after Brahms’s death.

All the same, the cleaner textures reveal some lovely wind players, including a wonderfully sweet-toned principal oboe. And, while Jordan assiduously observes Brahms’s markings, he discards many of the extra ‘traditional’ tempo variations and expressive nuances that have accumulated over the decades. The results sound fresh, with a fine balance between local flexibility and a firm grip over the direction and shape of movements as a whole. Where many conductors launch the first movement of the Second Symphony at a slow swing which necessitates a ratcheting up of tempo in the more stressful development, Jordan’s more moderate pace encompasses the whole vast movement in a single arc.

There are insights, too, such as Jordan’s locating of the breakthrough moment in the finale of the First Symphony not in the big string melody but the preceding Alpine paean for horns, or his unusually weighty account of the finale of the Third, which he regards (until its sunset coda) as ‘the darkest movement Brahms ever wrote’. Finest, perhaps, is the Fourth with the fierce intensity of the first-movement coda for once matching the tragic culmination of its passacaglia finale. There is much here to enjoy and think about.

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Bayan Northcott