The Four Symphonies
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80
Tragic Overture, Op.81
Variations on a Theme by Haydn [St Anthony Chorale], Op.56a
Piano Concerto No.1 in D-minor, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat, Op.83
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Gerhard Oppitz (piano)
Kyoko Takezawa (violin)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded between December 1988 & January 1995 in Herkulessaal, Munich
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: December 2017
CD No: RCA RED SEAL
88985463862 (5 CDs)
Duration: 5 hours 54 minutes
Colin Davis takes a powerful approach to Brahms’s music. The richly coloured timbre of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is ideally suited to this composer and the sound is enhanced by the great warmth of Munich’s Herkulessaal. Richness of colour is evident throughout although sometimes this involves sacrifice of detail, and the symphonic approach extends to the Concertos; in the case of the First for piano this is hardly surprising since Brahms first orchestrated the opening movement with the intention of the work becoming a Symphony. The fully-scored Maestoso opening bars underpinned by fierce timpani are hugely dramatic and Davis’s unhurried tempo stresses high drama. The piano’s balance with the orchestra is excellent with no attempt to focus closely on the soloist. In the Adagio, Gerhard Oppitz is gently relaxed and he has the skill to tailor his approach to the nature of Brahms’s muse and returns to vivid mode in the Finale. The Second Piano Concerto benefits from Oppitz’s ability to employ a less-challenging style, easing into the music with expressive warmth. He successfully transmits the sense of unease in the Allegro appassionato and this is succeeded by a particularly lovely rendering of the cello solo that commences the Andante. Delightful lightness in the Finale typifies the music’s innate optimism.
To drive Brahms swiftly is not Davis’s way – but I wonder if it were he or Kyoko Takezawa that had the greater influence when deciding to take the first movement of the Violin Concerto so broadly. In the context of Takezawa’s interpretation this approach works, the themes are subtly integrated and the familiar Joachim cadenza is a natural part of the music. The relaxed nature of the reading gives the opportunity for the oboe solo that commences the Adagio to be of the utmost beauty and Takezawa is entirely in sympathy with this expansiveness. The Finale is less ‘Hungarian’ than is sometimes the case but graciousness successfully complements the music’s bright nature.
Davis gives positive accounts of the two Overtures although Brahms’s Molto più moderato for the mid-section of the Tragic is here taken to mean Largo. The strict rhythm of the introduction to the Academic Festival Overture is ideal and there is a firm sense of natural exuberance but I had to listen hard for the triangle at the end. Nor is that instrument easily audible in a noble reading of the Haydn Variations. Typically, Davis makes the vivid ‘Variation VI’ grandly majestic – an interesting but valid difference when compared with the fury allotted this moment by such as Toscanini or Monteux.
In his Symphonies, Brahms indicated relatively few modifications to the opening tempo markings but sadly, many conductors add their own. Davis is not one of them and he makes few concessions to that style of performance. True he eases a little for the chorale at the end of Symphony No.1 (but not grossly so, as is often the case with others) nor does he quite sustain the pace at the second subject of the Finale of No.2 but in general his inflections are always musical and do not interrupt the impetus. Symphony No.3 shows Davis at his most imposing and given great substance. A factor in this is the observation of the important first-movement da capo, whereas in the First and Second Symphonies the equivalent repeat is not made; fortunately such omissions does not damage the proportions of either work. The central climax of No.3’s Finale is magnificently passionate and the subsequent return to the secondary melody magnificent.
There are also memorable passages elsewhere. In No.1 the unhurried sweep of the first movement and the gripping introduction to the Finale reveal the conductor’s deep sympathy with Brahms’s passionate side, and the dark colours of No.2 wrap around the listener comfortingly and the unbridled joy of the final pages engenders a wonderfully optimistic glow. Successful performances of No.4 depend on constancy of progress, the shadows being woven seamlessly into the more colourful episodes. In particular the Andante moderato should have a gentle surge and here Davis allows the louder moments to grow naturally from the peaceful sequences. He also understands the necessity for the rhythmic pulse of the Finale’s passacaglia to be absolutely stable. Best of all, Davis joins Toscanini in keeping the music rock-steady from the moment that a grand brass entry introduces the coda.
This is an attractive package, albeit using an economical but slightly inconvenient layout which results in the Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony each spreading over two discs. Nor is there a booklet but, importantly, the performances skilfully reveal the essence of these great works.