As soon as he took over the reins at the LSO, Gergiev defied expectations with a spectacular Mahler cycle, music that is barely identified with Russian music-making. After two world wars against Germany, Wagner and Brahms didn't stand in good stead, either, so we can expect raised eyebrows over this two-fer of the Brahms First and Second. Gergiev is a stranger to Brahms on disc except for accompanying Nikolaj Znaider in the Violin Cto. on RCA/BMG, which for me wasn't a huge success on his part. but I belong to the camp that considers Gergiev one of the greatest living conductors, and I was eager to hear his Brahms in a way I hadn't felt since hearing Mravinsky's Brahms cycle decades ago.
Brahms is one instance where the division between Toscanini and Furtwangler actually holds good, and Gergiev's steady beat and forward momentum in the first movement of sym. 1 tells us that he's not going to side with Furtwangler. But he's not impatient and driven enough to be toscanini, either, which leaves open the possibility that he will wind up being rather ordinary. It's also not favorable that the LSO's playing is fairly nondescript and the recorded sound is lacking in depth. Gergiev, like almost every Russian conductor, is essentially a Romantic, and perhaps he's at pains not to smother the Brahms First by leaning in too hard. The result is clean, smooth, musical, and direct - not ordinary but breaking no new trails. I only wish that the conductor had found more struggle and heroism in this monumental work. We've been having too much Brahms lite already (in case John eliot Gardiner is listening). No one since Simon Rattle and the Berliners (on EMI) has given us a very memorable Brahms First.
Since Gergiev is often strongest in slow, soft music, the first movement of Sym. 2 is unusually delicate and light - a nice way to begin. The surging second subject in the lower strings is soft-pedalled, and it becomes apparent that Gergiev isn't aiming for high Romanticism or sharp dramatic contrasts. He does succeed in giving us a change of mood and pacing in the second movement, where his understated approach is at its best. the Scherzo is lightly handled and not fussed over. The finale is quick, with no explosive contrast between the sotto voce opening and the sudden jolt of forte that follows. Again the surging second subject is understated.
In the end, these two readings are a couple of notches better than what you'd hear at any good subscription concert. Perhaps the LSO wanted to capitalize on their departing chief's huge reputation. Whatever the motive this isn't exceptional Brahms. It's often downright tame, which isn't the right way to approach such masterpieces.