Brahms/Dvorak: Symphony No. 1; Othello

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COMPOSERS: Brahms/Dvorak
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Othello
PERFORMER: Cleveland Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: 436 289-2 DDD
In the days when I worked as a BBC sound engineer I was once handed a beaten-up LP to transfer to tape for safe keeping. It was very scratchy and the needle jumped all over the place. It was a recording of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, and I can still remember the thunderous intensity of the opening. Brahms, famously reluctant to enter the symphonic world, seemed to be shouting above the turmoil (and the scratches): ‘I’ve done it!’ Furtwängler advanced through the symphony like an explorer hacking his way through tropical rainforest. It was dangerous and exciting.

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Against this benchmark, modern recordings seem inclined to sacrifice musical intensity to high fidelity. As with Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony (reviewed in the January issue) the opening statement from Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra says more about the potency of your loudspeakers than it ever will about the unleashing of titanic forces only just within the composer’s control. In other respects, however, this interpretation is noticeably superior to Eschenbach’s. Apart from anything else, Ashkenazy is almost seven minutes shorter over the entire symphony, and this comparative fleetness lends grace and charm to the wistful undulations of Brahms’s melodic style. There are moments of real drama in the outer movements, although they have about them an air of happenstance that fails to develop a coherent dramatic statement.

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It is an imaginative departure to couple this symphony with Dvorák’s Othello instead of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. It’s doubtful whether the rather insipid lyricism of this quasi-overture can stand up to Brahms’s teutonic finery, but mercifully there is no obligation to listen to the two pieces one after the other. Christopher Lambton