on 22 May 2014
The previous reviewer praised these performances as 'light', 'transparent' etc. This is true and a more lean, transparent approach can shed a new light on these much performed/recorded works. The performance of the first symphony is in many ways admirable with not an ounce of over-blown indulgent rhetoric. Jurowski mostly plays what is there in the score. But surely the opening 'Un poco sostenuto', what Donald Tovey called 'a gigantic procession', needs more weight? And it is possible to play this opening with plenty of weight without resorting to portentous heaviness, as demonstrated in Harnoncourt's recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. The whole of this huge first movement has a tragic tone not fully conveyed here. The Allegro, with its sharp accents and minor key harmonies needs more thrust. Those trenchant cross-rhythms initiated in the lower registers of the strings, at the end of the exposition require a stronger sense of dynamic contour and rhythmic tension. I listened to an old 1943 NBC broadcast with Toscanini conducting and here the whole Beethovenian power of the music is overpowering as it should be. I have never heard those trenchant cross-rhythms played with such an engagement with the intrinsic drama of the music. The second and third movements are played with considerable eloquence with well chosen tempi, but at times a note of blandness crept in, especially in the third intermezzo-like movement 'Un poco Allegretto e grazioso', where I didn't hear much of Brahms's 'grazioso'. The C minor introduction to the finale is suitably dark and well paced. But by the time we reach the bar before the 'piu andante' with the dramatic fff entry of the timpani in an arresting roll, everything sounded rather tame inhibiting the incredible contrast with the following glorious C major horn call. Jurowski conducted the rest of the 'Allegro' well with fairly swift tempo. The great tune, often compared with the theme in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth, was well contoured and never dragged out, as is often the case. Jurowski pulls out all the stops for the coda, which has a fitting note of jubilation. One odd detail; just before the tutti reappearance of the great Chorale theme ( for Tovey 'the most solemn note in the whole symphony') Jurowski makes a considerable ritardando in the strongly rhythmic 'presto' which precedes the tutti chorale theme, no doubt to enhance the themes noble effect. In fact the chorale is more impressive in terms of contrast without such slowing down as demonstrated by many eminent conductors, including Klemperer and Furtwangler. The only other conductor I know who makes a similar ritardando is Hermann Abendroth in his various 'historical' recordings of the symphony. This is strange. I can't imagine the young Russian conductor taking a lead from from a conductor who died in 1956, who was steeped in the German romantic tradition of conducting! But stranger things have happened in the world of orchestral conducting!
I felt that Jurowski empathised more with Brahms's Second Symphony. in fact this recording (live from the Festival Hall London) has received glowing reviews from some quarters. Jurowski, again, does not impose his interpretation of the work. It is not an interventionist performance. In the first movement everything flows naturally. Jurowski has a wonderful sense of pacing and contour in the 'Allegro non troppo'. And I have rarely heard the LPO play with this kind of empathy and precision, with such a rich sonority of tone. Jurowski takes the first movement repeat, which pays off with a beautifully lyrical lead back into the exposition in the woodwind; another couple of bars of music in fact! The development section, with rich counterpoint, is most clearly articulated. The F sharp minor trombone clash, which initiates a range of remote tutti modulations in the minor, sounds quite well, but I would have welcomed a touch more drama here. Again, in the Toscanini broadcast, mentioned earlier, the trombones sound baleful, like roaring lions, which continue into the minor key sequences. Similarly the second movement 'Adagio non troppo' is well contoured, with a natural sounding pace. I would have liked a stronger element of drama in the movements stormy interruptions. I couldn't hear much of what Tovey termed 'that weird moaning in the trombone' in the agitated crescendo just before the movements coda, which is delivered with exceptional clarity. But overall Jurowski, although aware of the works many moods and registers, does not particularly emphasise the darker side of this 'lyrical' symphony. These moments are intoned and clearly audible, they are just more integrated into the works admirable vicissitudes. For those more attracted to the darker elements the Klemperer recording is a good recommendation, still sounding well in clearly defined stereo, with the superb earlier/original Philharmonia Orchestra, despite being recorded in the late fifties. There is also a superb recording (mono only) from 1952, again with the Philharmonia, with Toscanini from London's Festival Hall, where the maestro conducted two concerts devoted to the symphonic music of Brahms. The lighter tone of the third and fourth movements are well delivered by Jurowski and the LPO; the finale having just the right balance between high spirits, jubilation and sustained rhythmic control. Jurowski wisely deploys antiphonal first and second violins which really pays off particularly in the finale with its many intricacies of counterpoint, clearly audible in this natural sounding recording. I would rank this LPO performance as definitely one of the top current recommendations. The Harnoncourt recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, which I slightly prefer, for its scrupulous detail and superb playing, is a good alternative as a modern recording. It is remarkable that compared with these 'state of the art' modern recordings, I could actually hear more detail, especially in the finale from brass and timpani in the old Toscanini broadcast from 1943. But of course it is in mono, and the overall sound, although clear, distorts occasionally, and is replete with surface noise.