After leaving the Cleveland Orch., where he was copiously recorded, Dohnanyi moved on to lead the Philharmonia in London, where he wasn't recorded at all during a tenure that was relatively long: 1997-2008 (he overlapaped with both orchestras for the first five years). It's gratifying to get some live concerts released by Signum, which is serving more or less as the Philharmonia's house label - I don't know why they don't actually start their own, following in the wake of London's other major orchestras. A previous CD of the Brahms Second and fourth struck me as a mixed bag: sleepy Second, brisk and lively Fourth. Now to complete the cycle, which can be bought as a box set, here's the First and Third.
The First begins with power and assurance, but at the same time it isn't built with muscularity; the surface is rather sleek, in fact. That sounds contradictory, butDohnanyi works with slow deliberation while still keeping the moving line strong and supple. the heroic heartbeat provided by the timpani is kept in the background. The Andante sostenuto is slow and grave, adding to the impression of a seasoned conductor who has become reflective about the masterpieces of the German repertoire. Since the phrasing is supple and tender, this movement holds your attention despite - or is it because of? - Dohnani's inwardness. The Philharmonia is the most elegant of London's big-name orchestras, and it shows in the refined Scherzo, subdued to the point of being self-effacing. But how beautifully every woodwind solo is played.
I was so engrossed that I hoped Dohnanyi wouldn't lapse into slackness in the premonitory slow introduction to the finale - one of Brahms's most original conceptions - and happily he doesn't. There's restraint compared to, say, Bernstein or Karajan, but great confidence, too. This is traditionalism asserting its rights. the atmosphere becomes melancholy and touching, not at all what you'd expect from Brahms testing his strength against Beethoven. Even the big tune is delivered a bit sorrowfully. Such a distinctive interpretation is rare to find at any time, but particularly today in our climate of technical proficiency without much meaning. Thee's a slight flagging during the titanic coda, but still, the whole performance is of a piece -- quite wonderful.
The most impressive traditional Brahms third I've herd in the past few years came, in unlikely fashion, from Colin Davis leading the Staatskapelle Dresden in concert on Profil. The contours of Dohnanyi's reading are the same: warm, rounded phrasing, more reflective than propulsive pacing, and a sense of autumnal reflection. The Philharmonia's beautiful playing takes center stage here more than any striking interpretative touches. (Imagine the most gorgeous generic Brahms Third you've ever heard.) Dohnanyi doesn't attempt any contrast between the two inner movements, but both are done with such loving tenderness - not a quality I associate with him - that contrast doesn't matter. What is demanded by now is a strong, even thrusting finale. Happily, the pace quickens considerably, but Dohnanyi remains a little too attached to the mellowness of the previous movements. This Third never quite acquires a backbone.
Unlike with the earlier disc, I wouldn't call this one a mixed bag, but the First is the outstanding performance.