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Splendid Brahms Symphony Cycle from Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra
on 9 August 2008
The London Symphony Orchestra's LSO Live label finally offers as a box set acclaimed conductor Bernard Haitink's latest - and third - Brahms symphony cycle (The other two - which are still available - were recorded by Philips with Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw and Boston Symphony orchestras in the 1970s and early 1990s.). Those interested in a fine Brahms symphony cycle by one of our greatest conductors will not be disappointed with this box set, which compiles the individual LSO Live CDs released over the past few years (These were recorded at live concert performances of Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra primarily back in 2003 and 2004.).
Highlights include Haitink's spellbinding interpretations of the four Brahms symphonies and a brilliant performance by concertmaster Gordan Nikolitch and principal cellist Timothy Hugh of the Brahms Double Concerto. The London Symphony Orchestra's performances are absolutely impeccable, rivalling those from preeminent Dutch, German and Austrian orchestras.
Haitink offers a compelling interpretation of Brahms' 1st Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in excellent form, which ranks as among the best performed and recorded I have heard. His latest interpretation is one which seems a bit less restrained than his earlier versions, but still replete with strict adherence to Brahms' tempi. His latest interpretation is, in some respects, more exciting than his earlier Philips recordings, emphasizing the rich sonorities and complex architecture of Brahms' score.
Without question Haitink's LSO Live recording is the best live recording of the Brahms 2nd Symphony I have heard, easily eclipsing Kurt Masur's acclaimed account with the New York Philharmonic recorded nearly a decade ago by Teldec. It is also Haitink's finest recording of this work, which he has recorded previously with both the Royal Concertgebouw and Boston Symphony orchestras. Haitink does a wonderful job emphasizing the textural richness of Brahms' score, while keeping the orchestra playing well at a very brisk tempo. However, the real treasure on this recording is the excellent performance of the Double Concerto by the London Symphony's Concertmaster and Principal Cellist which opens this CD. Theirs is a vibrant, rhapsodic performance which compares quite well - indeed I think may be better - than the recent Deutsche Grammophon recording featuring violinist Gil Shaham with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Once again the orchestra plays with much intensity and warmth, led ably by Haitink.
Bernard Haitink's LSO Live CD of the Brahms Serenade Number 2 and the 3rd Symphony, is recorded from concerts he conducted in 2002 (serenade) and 2003 (symphony). Brahms' Serenade Number 2 could be regarded as an early precursor to his symphonies, since it is a five-movement work. Haitink leads the London Symphony Orchestra in yet another excellent performance, noted for warm, rhapsodic playing from the string section. However, the best performance on this CD is that of Brahms' Third Symphony. This piece itself is a bit unusual for a 19th Century symphony, in the form of Allegro Andante Poco Allegretto Allegro. In its overall tone, the work itself is a bit "darker" than the Second Symphony, which many have regarded as Brahms' "Pastoral" symphony. Haitink excels in emphasizing the more melancholy aspects of the work, leading the London Symphony Orchestra in the best-conducted and recorded version of this symphony that I've heard so far, with the possible exception of Harnoncourt's Teldec recording with him conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Haitink's latest recording seems a bit darker than Masur's New York Philharmonic Orchestra recording from Teldec, and perhaps, Harnoncourt's as well.
Haitink has conducted the London Symphony in an unusually warm, vibrant performance of the Brahms 4th Symphony, which is replete with excellent solo performances from the french horns, woodwinds and strings. I was especially pleased with Haitink's dignified, but still brooding, interpretation of the 4th movement, which comes across as a musical interlude between darkness and light. I personally regard this recording of the Brahms 4th symphony as the best currently available, in a crowded pack that includes distinguished recordings from the likes of Claudio Abbado, Herbert Blomstedt, Carlos Kleiber, Kurt Masur, and Kurt Sanderling.
Fans of Haitink's critically acclaimed 1970s Brahms symphony cycle may miss the ambient warmth of the Concertgebouw's main concert hall in this Brahms symphony cycle, but I will contend that these new recordings sound more vivid than the earlier Philips recordings. Thats due to superb sound engineering by producer James Mallinson and his team. Without a doubt, this is one of the best recorded Brahms symphony cycles available currently.