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
WDR Sinfonie-Orchester Köln
Recorded between May 2002 and April 2004 in Kölner Philharmonie
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: February 2005
CD No: AVIE AV 2051
Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes
Do we really need yet another set of Brahms’s symphonies? If we do, this one from Avie has strong claims on our attention. The Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra may not be in the very front rank of German orchestras, but on the evidence of this set it is not far behind; arguably only Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and Bavarian Radio are finer ensembles.
Founded in 1947, the Cologne Orchestra has developed a good pedigree under such previous Chief Conductors as Dohnányi and Bertini. Semyon Bychkov is the present Chief, in place since 1997, and from first note to last of this Brahms set, it is absolutely apparent that orchestra and conductor have worked long and hard on these performances, which are notable for their meticulously worked-out detail and care over balances. These fruits of much thought and hard work are excellently recorded – with a firm bass, clearly defined inner parts and a warm overall glow.
Given the set’s overall excellence, it is perhaps a little unfortunate that the First Symphony should be the one that makes all the right noises but ultimately fails to convince. Bychkov takes the first movement repeat but neither of the outer movements generates quite the requisite voltage. However, there is much to admire in the playing itself, which is disciplined and finely poised; I have seldom heard the finale’s trombone chorale better blended or more sensitive, and there’s an impressive violin solo in the slow movement. Only, though, when Fafner’s giant footsteps, in the form of the bass trombone casting a long shadow across the orchestral landscape in the finale, does the performance really catch fire.
By contrast, the golden-toned Third Symphony, the earliest of the set to be recorded and perhaps the most difficult of these symphonies interpretatively, is a resounding success, igniting fully from bar one and sounding much more live. The first movement repeat is taken and the tempo perfectly chosen to accommodate both the forward-moving sweep and the music’s more reflective moments, and there is a real fire-in-the-belly traversal of the movement’s development. The recording captures the all-important bass-line and the timbre of the lower woodwinds to particularly good effect. The Andante too is thoroughly impressive. Seldom have the interchanges between wind and strings been quite so beautifully modulated, dovetailing perfectly, whilst the violas and cellos are balanced with rare finesse against the violins in the ensuing cantilena. The Allegretto and finale are just as impressive both in grasp of detail – exemplary care over string accents and woodwinds in the finale’s sotto voce introduction – and in forward thrust. This performance stands up well in the very best of company.
Almost equally impressive is the Second Symphony, the last to be recorded (in 2004), the 8-bar lead-back to the exposition memorably played by lower strings, and the first movement overall taken at a flowing tempo, the ‘quasi ritenente’ passage not overdone, and with particular care paid to balancing inner parts (especially where a crescendo/decrescendo is marked). This too feels like a live performance. In the slow movement Bychkov hits just the right tempo – Adagio, certainly, and definitely ‘non troppo’ – with the result that the music’s flow is never effortful, transitions perfectly integrated. The finale is notably clean and crisp, its lithe muscularity and carefully observed dynamics a welcome riposte to all those over-weight Brahms Seconds in which orchestra and conductor collectively seize on the movement as a premature invitation to applause.
The set culminates in a Fourth of real distinction, once again wonderfully played and with genuine grit and power in the culminating Passacaglia, and which lacks only the variety of tension and perspective which the very greatest conductors, such as Klemperer or Carlos Kleiber, bring to the first movement’s expanses. However, there is much that is memorable here, not least the rich-voiced, dark-hued strings in the Andante.
With three out of the four symphonies receiving outstanding performances and all four superbly played and recorded, this set is a very considerable achievement. At a time when far too many recordings of core works get made rather casually for no perceptible artistic reason, this set enshrines fully-matured performances by a first-class partnership.