David Zinman clearly likes competition. Having recently completed his Mahler cycle with the Tonhalle Orchestra, RCA Red Seal has released a complete cycle of Brahms symphonies in one handsome set. As with many (if not all) of his Mahler recordings, Zinman rises to the challenge brilliantly. Balancing a lush Romantic sound with forthright tempi, these prove to be very exciting performances indeed.
The 1st symphony is the strongest with the first movement delivered with terrific force and concentration. Although the Tonhalle strings lack the gloss of their Berlin and Vienna counterparts, they nevertheless create a strident sound, matched by a spirited woodwind section. And there's palpable danger in this counterpoint. Zinman may need to breathe a little more when it comes to the Adagio, which can fees brusque. But he eases into the tempo and the allegretto is delivered with great rhythmic clarity. The rush into the fourth movement is a mistake, but once we're bedded in, the main theme is played with great nobility and shape. There's still an exciting residual aggression. Brahms's counterpoint has never felt livelier.
While that pugnacious approach pays dividends in the 1st symphony, it feels forced in the 2nd. The more restful tones of the opening movement are marred by a somewhat brisk tempo and antagonistic playing. The woodwind is really first class, however, particularly in its dialogue with the horns in the second movement. Had Zinman held back those earlier movements, the vivid energies of the finale would have had a marked sense of contrast. The playing throughout is superb.
The surging crescendo at the opening of the 3rd symphony opens a commanding performance. The orchestra's collective phrasing underlines emotional intent, creating a wonderfully neurotic quality. And that textural acumen is what really stands out across the cycle. No doubt Mahler's complex counterpoint prepared Zinman in clarifying these textures, all the time balancing detail with form. And any doubt about his emotional sensitivity is allayed by the gloriously heart on sleeve reading of the 3rd's Allegretto.
A shame, then, that the affecting opening movement of the 4th symphony feels initially passive. More filigree than full-blooded, Zinman keeps much in reserve. But the movement builds to a torrid and passionate conclusion. Zinman creates surprises throughout and that same stridency we heard in the 1st symphony comes to the fore in a really punchy Scherzo. Snapping up the finale from the Scherzo's final cadence, Zinman prepares for an intense symphonic journey. Vigorous and belligerent, the finale is truly stirring. Although there are passages in Zinman's Brahms that I will have to live with to love - and he can be somewhat relentless in the second symphony - there are huge dividends to be reaped. For such familiar repertoire, with other great contenders already in the library, Zinman and the Zürich forces paint these masterpieces afresh.