LABELS: Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-4
PERFORMER: Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: BPHR 160041
It is a delusion that recording technology and home listening can ever replicate the concert hall experience, though that has never stopped producers and artists aiming for the impossible. Hence this weighty box of six LPs, offering ‘direct to disc’ analogue recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Brahms symphony performances of 2014, captured live by two Sennheiser microphones high above Simon Rattle’s head, cut onto lacquer on a Neumann VMS-80 lathe, a piece of equipment that some venerate as if it’s the Holy Grail.
In his booklet essay Rainer Maillard, one of the producers, poses the question of whether ‘direct to disc’ recordings represent a step forward or back. In one respect the latter’s true: since each work occupies three LP sides, the amount of physical manhandling necessary to finish a symphony is only a couple of rungs below the labour involved with an equivalent shellac album. After the icy clarity of today’s digitally ‘perfected’ CDs, the analogue, single-take warmth proves more beneficial, especially when Rattle is in Romantic mode, which he often is. Some phrases and harmonies are stroked and stretched as if Brahms was Wagner’s middle name. Elsewhere, Rattle’s a modernist, giving rhythms a percussive attack whenever the chance appears. At the very least, the fusion of approaches keeps one listening, and the results get stronger as the cycle proceeds. The Third Symphony’s ambiguities of mood are particularly vivid; much of the Fourth is compelling, too. Playing is beautiful throughout.
Aside from the old-style warmth, the spatial spread derived from the microphones suggests stereophony’s early days. First and second violins are clearly separated; timpani thunder from the right; while the leader’s solo violin pirouettes spring up over your left shoulder. Two pretty audience coughs decorate the Fourth’s scherzo, and each symphony ends with a snatch of applause. Only 1833 copies of the set have been manufactured (the number’s in cute homage to Brahms’s year of birth), and the cost is princely. Does the quality of sound and performance make it worthwhile? I’d say no, but it really depends on your home equipment, bank balance and point of view.