The Four Symphonies:
No.1 in C minor, Op.68
No.2 in D, Op.73
No.3 in F, Op.90
No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Recorded 14 & 15 April 2010 in Tonhalle Zurich, Switzerland
RCA RED SEAL
88697 93349 2 (3 CDs)
2 hours 46 minutes
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David Zinman enters into the fray of a crowded Brahms catalogue with a symphony cycle at once lucidly sounded and balanced, beautifully played and recorded, and finding a just equilibrium between the composer’s classicism and romanticism.
The first movement of the C minor work has a purposeful tread in the slow introduction, yet also expands from the heart; the main Allegro has drive without being clipped, the more-lyrical sections easeful without becoming clogged; a nod to ‘tradition’ without falling over the edge. Typically, the exposition is repeated, and convincingly so (it rarely works for me); also convincing is Zinman’s adrenaline-fuelled, flexible yet seamless journey through the first movement, detail vividly released but with no lack of orchestral abundance (double basses full and weighty) when required.
These are live performances, but with little in the way of audience intrusion during the music with just a few ‘noises-off’ during the music and at the end of movements; more an ‘invited’ congregation rather than paying punters. There is no applause. Silent rather than concert-hall ambience tends to inform the gaps between movements (but this policy is inconsistent), those ‘black holes’ rather breaking atmosphere; if we were not told then these performances would pass as long-take studio productions. There does though need to be a few more seconds between the first two movements. The too-soon-reached Andante is ideally paced for its marking without losing expressiveness; the Zurich strings have a lovely sheen to them and the violin solo is radiant. More rapid-fire editing and we’re straight into the intermezzo-like third movement Allegretto where a little more relaxation would have been welcome; Zinman misses the grazioso marking; the segueing between movements – in all four symphonies – is of similar-length, too short breaks and is a regrettable sign of our relentless times, so that when an attacca can be made and is (such as between Symphony 1’s final two movements) to add a bit of drama, the moment has already had its thunder stolen. The finale itself is also tightly structured; yet for all the shapeliness on offer maybe greater expanse is needed at times; that said, in this last movement, Zinman is closer than many conductors to observing Brahms’s somewhat brusque tempo changes. The triumphant coda – Brahms finally, after many years of doubt and endeavour, this is his Opus 68, had emerged from the shadow of Beethoven – is proudly vindicating without pomposity.
The glorious Second Symphony suits Zinman admirably. The spacious first movement (the repeat adding to its scale, and good not to hear the edit at 0’58” again at 6’17”) is rather introspective and leisurely, even ‘pastoral’ (to use an unofficial epithet for the work), but with sweep and muscle when required; the development section reaches an unforced peak. Further rudimentary editing – ambience-silence-ambience – is ruinous before the Adagio, quite chaste here, begins. The third movement enjoys elegance and jeu d’esprit and the finale is ebullient, although the horns hardly register between 8’54” and 8’56”.
The third discs couples symphonies 3 and 4 – by the way, RCA’s presentation, otherwise handsome with some with well-chosen photographs, promotes “Brahms Symphonies 1-4” which could imply that he wrote other such titled works – with the F major work not as striving as it can be; it is even a little twee at times. Yet there is a ‘free but happy’ (the symphony’s opening motto) feel to the whole, even if the work’s progress is rather too untroubled, bland even. Yes, the woodwinds beguile throughout, and Zinman avoids stasis and mawkishness – in this respect the second movement sounds hasty and matter-of-fact, although the third is richly lyrical and affecting. The finale brings the most trenchant music-making, but what a pity the last chord’s resonance is spoilt by an adjacent ‘bang’, which surely could have been airbrushed out.
The absoluteness of Brahms’s ultimate (in every sense) symphony is unfolded with surge and dignity by Zinman, his Zurich orchestra playing with sophistication and ardour, with something saved for the coda’s impassioned outburst. The Andante moderato moves along nicely, poetically opening out as required. Is that a hitherto unsuspected dissonance from a clarinet at 9’28”? Not surprisingly, by now, any chance to reflect on this deep music is roughly forsaken by the mere couple of seconds afforded us before the scherzo arrives, which is persuasively biting and animated. The finale – yes, this attacca comes off – is lofty and resolute on its way to its maybe-tragic conclusion (“maybe” because “tragic” isn’t everybody’s description for Brahms’s farewell to the symphony).
This is neither a definitive nor an urgently recommendable release, but there are many beauties and felicities to be relished, and David Zinman certainly has the symphonies’ structures and details in full view.