Brahms
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Tragic Overture, Op.81
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Recorded in Watford Colosseum on 18 & 19 January 2004
CD No: NAXOS 6.110077
[CD/SACD]
Duration: 73 minutes
Reviewed: February 2005
It takes some chutzpah to launch another Brahms symphony cycle – even at Naxos’s budget price featuring an international orchestra and a conductor whose stock is in the ascendancy. This first volume turns out pretty well. There’s an urgency to Marin Alsop’s conducting and a lively response from the London Philharmonic that transcends the studio, here the rather cavernous and too-ambient Watford Colosseum; and Alsop makes no concessions to authenticity, favouring a big-band approach that is sweetly and powerfully delivered but which is sometimes too swelled and confused by the acoustic.
Recorded competition is, of course, very stiff in this repertoire – and this perfectly serviceable and sometimes individual account doesn’t alter the pecking-order of recommendations, or add to our understanding of the music; but, in fairness to Alsop, she doesn’t attempt novelty for its own sake. The very opening, imposing and striding, promises more than is ultimately delivered, and Alsop sometimes intrudes the music’s flow for no good reason; conversely she is excellent in following through Brahms’s rhythmic designs. The repeat of the first movement’s exposition isn’t justified, though – it sounds here more like a delaying tactic before the real business of the development – and the broadening of pace for the motto’s return in the finale’s coda also invokes the wrong sort of ‘tradition’ – staying in tempo is always more convincing (and Brahms is silent on the matter as far as the printed score is concerned).
This Brahms 1, then, is likeable but not distinctive enough to challenge, say, Boult and Klemperer (both EMI), Wand’s Chicago account (RCA, but which is now sabotaged by an awful transfer on “Artistes et RĂ©pertoires”) or Harnoncourt (Teldec) and Berglund (Ondine) who both offer revelatory reappraisals. But Alsop is considered and appreciative, and although she makes the finale’s ‘big tune’ a little syrupy, she is clearly in love with this music and has taken much trouble over the score and secured a sonorous bass foundation. An edit at 13’23” in the finale (to a ‘lighter’-sounding take) might have been better disguised, though, and there is too long a gap between the intermezzo-like third movement and the finale; tension dissipates.
Nobody, though, should feel short-changed by this recording, and newcomers to the music will be well served, just as Brahms is – in general terms. But there’s often a catch … here it is a magnificent Tragic Overture, paced ideally – broad but purposeful – and delivered with clarity and heartfelt expressiveness; and the overture’s Academic companion (“one laughs, the other cries,” said Brahms, or something like it) receives a relaxed, good-natured reading that concludes the CD in jubilant fashion.

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