Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Tragic Overture, Op.81
Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a [Haydn Variations]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Recorded between 1989 and 2005 in the Konzerthaus Freiburg and Hans-Rosbaud-Studio Baden-Baden
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2006
CD No: HÄNSSLER CLASSIC
CD 93.134 [Tragic Overture & Symphony No.1]
CD 93.135 [Symphony No.2 & St Anthony Variations]
CD 93.136 [Symphonies 3 & 4]
Duration: 58 minutes
Although recorded some while ago, the exception being Symphony No.2 (recorded in 2005) this is the first release (as far as I know) of Symphonies 1 (1995) and 3 (1993), and Tragic Overture (also ’95). Available separately, the ‘first’ CD (93.134) couples the Tragic Overture with and before Symphony No.1, a sensible piece of ‘concert’ arrangement. Michael Gielen’s account of the dramatic ‘overture’ is powerful and taut, propulsive and detailed, with a surging forth that integrates the more reflective moments into a vibrant whole. It’s an imposing beginning to an impressive cycle.
Symphony No.1 avoids lingering in the ‘usual’ places. This a long-viewed account, the middle movements being more interlude-like than can be the case, the big, dramatic arguments expansively laid out in the outer movements, the first one including the repeat of the exposition (convincingly intensified on its return) and a finale in which the ‘motto’ theme blazes forth in the triumphant coda ‘in tempo’ (as Brahms tacitly indicates in the score). Superbly satisfying!
Surprisingly, Gielen omits the repeat in the Second Symphony’s opening movement; as it develops (literally), Gielen’s stratagem becomes clear. Bountiful in its expression, and flexible in tempo, Gielen ensures that long melodies are fully measured within a certainty of direction. With many beguiling exchanges between antiphonal violins and clarification of detail that can often pass for nothing (this holds true for all the performances here), there is a flow of emotion, a powerful bass line underpinning the whole, with Gielen laying the emphasis on the development – where there is a real flare-up, a show of temperament. Heartfelt modulations are not in short supply in the Adagio, either, and here they are moulded to the larger design.
How instructive is Gielen’s conducting as to how Brahms’s mechanisms mesh together. His is a trenchant, rather ‘tougher’ view of the Second Symphony than is normally encountered, and it closes with an exhilarating account of the finale, where the emotional temperature is increased for the coda, not the tempo.
Also on 93.135 is the St Anthony (Haydn) Variations. The Theme is simply stated, without indulgence, to initiate a bracing reading, one pointed and classically proportioned, allowing the final Variation its fullest extent.
Symphonies 3 and 4 are coupled on 93.136. The former seems less ‘personal’ here, less autumnal. Gielen’s taut yet yielding approach sees the work as flawless in structure, direct in expression; how well he builds climaxes and fits detail into pertinent place; the outer movements bring a torrent of consciousness, the middle ones are in restless repose.
The Fourth is similarly dynamic and unleashed, white-hot by the time the first movement coda is reached. Forget suggestions of Gielen being pedantic no-nonsense, for while there are copious examples of Gielen’s analysis of the scores (and, make no mistake, his are closely-observed readings) – and which are often revelatory of structure and detailing – there’s also a big heart, one that can bloom a phrase or hit a high note with spine-tingling activity.
A wonderful cycle then, honestly and lucidly recorded, that offers further examples of Gielen’s patrician art – probably the most underrated of the genuinely great conductors.