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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony #1, Op. 68 (1876)
  • Symphony #2, Op. 73 (1877)
  • Symphony #3, Op. 90 (1883)
  • Symphony #4, Op. 98 (1885)
NDR Symphony Orchestra/Günter Wand
Recorded Live 1990-1992
Profil PH14046 3CDs
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These are not Wand's RCA Brahms recordings (either cycle). Nor are they officially new to Profil, released within PH12043 in 2012. Wand was an interesting case. Originally one of Germany's great new music advocates, his repertoire eventually narrowed to Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner. Well, not quite, but very nearly. Along with Mozart and Schubert, these three Bs comprised the core of his output until his death. Known today as a Bruckner specialist, his other work gets noticeably overshadowed.

But he was a great Brahms conductor. Many rank his studio RCA cycle with the best, still others stand by his later, live one on the same label. There's also a fine 1st Symphony in Chicago (also RCA) and a boatload of archival stuff, such as we have here. This cycle is easily one of the best I have ever heard, gloriously played and recorded, with a lifetime of insight and individuality. You might think that a German predisposed to this kind of music might be a stiff plodder, especially with the first two pieces having their own discs. Not so!

In fact, the 1st Symphony explodes out of the gate and grabs you by the collar. The ensemble quality here is remarkable, and you know you're in for a thrill. Suddenly, everything slows and takes on a majestic air. Indeed, the most amazing thing about this fantastic 1st is the sheer elasticity of tempo and expression that never, ever feels like personal mannerism. The horns and low strings are almost sinfully warm, and the entire performance moved me like few others have. Wand commands everything; the NDR forces respond to every hairpin change and shift. Many conductors understandably lose focus as they age, but not this one!

On the other hand, this 2nd Symphony is the weakest in the set. Again, there is a unique sense of flexibility and freedom of pulse, but the explosiveness is less present. Wand falls unexpectedly into the trap of letting the work drag, and the outer movements simply do not catch fire as they must. That said, there is some fantastic string playing going on here, and the winds are radiant. I don't believe that "slow" Brahms is a bad thing; Klemperer is still a reference in this music, but the old man knew how to make music move, Wand did too, but it just doesn't quite happen here. Pity that, I find the light and propulsive inner movements just about perfect.

Wand rebounds with a fine 3rd. The finest conductors in the world always struggled with this work, while lesser conductors have always responded well to its challenge. Wand is one of the few greats who knew how to conduct it. First, he uses his magnificent orchestra to excellent effect, refusing to let the music stiffen. The problems found in the 2nd are not here, but all the positive qualities remain. Again, the inner movements are nothing short of mesmerizing; check out those low strings! A slower than usual start to the finale brings out tremendous detail and then ignites in a wholly convincing fashion. As for the 4th, it emerges as naturally as Athena from the head of Zeus, gradually building in tension and energy throughout the first movement. Again, the players of the NDR respond to every whim of their leader, and this is arguably the most intense and powerful performance of the four.

Obviously, there is enormous competition in this music, including the various cycles and performances that I have already reviewed. But if you love Brahms, you owe it to yourself to own Wand's fabulous recordings, enhanced and energized by the live setting. Applause is included by the way, but otherwise the audiences are very quiet and should do nothing to hinder your listening experience.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

Trumpet