Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No 2; Symphony No 3; Symphony No 4; Tragic Overture; Variations on the St Anthony Chorale

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: RCA Classical Navigator
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No 2; Symphony No 3; Symphony No 4; Tragic Overture; Variations on the St Anthony Chorale
PERFORMER: Dresden Staatskapelle/Kurt Sanderling
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 30367 2 ADD
I can still remember my excitement when I first heard these performances when they were issued in the early Seventies – these were vital, gritty, readings of works that in live concerts and recordings often tended to sound bland. So, a nostalgic sigh for these discs which now seem somewhat less riveting, though they are still, at this bargain price, highly competitive.

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RCA’s repackaging, alas, offers no sensible documentation about the works or their performers. Here we have one of the finest orchestras in the world directed by a man, German by birth, East German by force of circumstance, second for a time to Mravinsky in Leningrad and considered to be amongst the leading conductors of his generation. Rather special!

The First Symphony sets the tone of the cycle: seriousness without melodrama, a richly nourished string tone, the whole edifice built on a solid bass line – something akin to Klemperer but, because of wide-vibrato brass (horns especially, of course), more orchestrally individual.

The coupling of the Second and Third Symphonies is generous (though without exposition repeats). There is nothing here as opulent or as profoundly moulded as Karajan’s Berlin sound but the lack of showmanship is a plus: for example, the finale coda of the Second is more a grandmaster’s endgame than a jockey’s final straight. The Third, also, is more dignified than glamorous – the opening Allegro is too slow for me, and there’s an especially wobbly horn in the third movement that might prove difficult to live with – but the finale is perfectly measured.

The Fourth Symphony is a marvellous display of the Dresden orchestra’s deeply burnished yet powerful sound and of Sanderling’s dedication to structural and dynamic detail. He displays all the fire sometimes missing from his more recent concerts and recordings. No one can equal Furtwängler in the Passacaglia but this performance comes closer than many.

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The fillers are more than fine. The sheer fun of the ‘Haydn’ Variations is a guaranteed spirit-raiser. The occasional tendency of the CD transfers to deprive the sound of rich treble is not disfiguring and, overall, the set is worth any collector’s limited funds – marginally more recommendable than Günter Wand’s safer, more mainstream readings. David Wilkins