This is an excellent Brahms First. Slower tempos simply don't work in this symphony, especially in the first movement, and with Gardiner the music in the opening panel is driven, tense, filled with spirit. It exhibits the requisite sense of tragedy, but tragedy seen through the eyes of a younger man – Brahms was forty-one when he finished the work. The opening drum beat has weight but doesn't overwhelm the brass and strings. The main theme is filled with tension and rhythmic drive, while the ensuing downward string swoops have extra portamento to impart greater urgency and a sense of something out of control. But the music exhibits a bounce to much of the rhythmic character too, a feeling of propulsion, of youthful anxiety. It's all powerfully brought off with conviction and precision by Gardiner and his players.
The second movement has a lovely lyrical flow, again with relatively brisk tempos. The ensuing panel is chipper and majestic by turns, as it should be, and Gardiner and his forces capture the heart of this movement nearly perfectly. As far as I'm concerned the finale to the Brahms First has always been a bit puzzling, from its somber introduction, to its tense main theme, its mellow consolatory alternate theme and onto its "free at last" ending. But Gardiner delivers the goods here as well as anyone. Of the Brahms Firsts I have admired over the years – those by Szell, Walter, Ormandy, Doráti, Levine and a few others – this one by Gardiner would now be my first choice. The sound is vivid and powerful throughout.
The choral fare offered as fillers here is equally splendid. Schicksalied is beautifully sung, with the female members of the choir sounding especially lovely. The early Brahms work, Bergräbnisgesang, written at the time the composer was working on Ein Deutsches Requiem, is shown to be a quite attractive work in this fine performance. The a cappella Mendelssohn work, Mitten wir in Leben sind, from the composer's Op. 23 Drei Kirchen musik, is also well sung. Again, the sound is excellent. All in all, I must give this CD my highest recommendations!
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Cummings