Brahms
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.73
Tragic Overture, Op.81
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Recorded 17-18 May (Tragic Overture) and 21-22 May 2003 at the Barbican Hall, London
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0045
Duration: 60 minutes
Reviewed: April 2004
The first instalment of Bernard Haitink’s LSO Brahms cycle – consisting of the Second Symphony and the Double Concerto –received, generally, a warm welcome. I have to report, however, that in the case of the present release, there is very little to set the pulse racing.
The symphony is placed first (the overture would have been better in this position) and the opening is purposeful if without the majestic stride and sense of portent that should characterise this striving music. Brahms’s ’Un poco sostenuto’ marking is not at all easy to interpret, but there should be, surely, a feeling of momentum and moving onward. Unfortunately, Haitink sounds merely rather slow and does not create the sense of anticipation that should precede the main Allegro, which is judiciously paced with everything reasonably in place, but the lack of impetus is disheartening and the LSO is not on its best form. The exposition repeat is omitted. There are some untidy string semiquavers in the climax of the development section and the rugged, defiant quality that should be present towards the end of the movement is missing. Haitink shapes the coda well enough, but its transition to the major feels altogether perfunctory.
The tempo for the Andante sostenuto is well-enough judged, but moves carefully from one note to the next rather than having a sense of phrasing and shape, which leads one to wonder just how much rehearsal time there was. The solo violin, as recorded, sounds distinctly wiry and not as secure as one would like or expect. The intermezzo-like third movement should convey an impression of the sun peering through the clouds, but Haitink’s dour, somewhat poker-faced reading does not afford sufficient contrast with the music either side of it.
In the last movement, a lack of tension and mystery prevails in the introduction where one misses the presence of the contrabassoon, heard so effectively in Haitink’s Concertgebouw recording, and the noble horn solo suffers from moments of insecure intonation. Strings warmly phrase the finale’s ’big tune’, the Allegro non troppo marking well adhered to, though the additional ’ma con brio’ is noticeable for its absence. The movement – and symphony as a whole – does not gather excitement as it progresses, and the final moments, with the return of the ’chorale’ theme, are decidedly underwhelming.
The Tragic Overture is, regrettably, in a similar mould, in that tension is lacking, and some of the articulation is distinctly flaccid, smoothing out one of Brahms’s tougher thematic and harmonic statements. I’m surprised that the tentative horn note at 3’17” has been left uncorrected.
This is not one of LSO Live’s more distinguished releases, and is rather dry in terms of recording quality. The recent reissue of Klemperer’s towering EMI account is far more satisfying.

 

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