on 7 October 2013
The long awaited 'new' set of the Brahms symphonies from Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra are finally here! Having lived with them for a fortnight now I can confirm the wait has been well worth it. Of course, one takes the musical and technical virtuosity of the orchestra for granted but, here, the Gewandhaus Orchestra surpass themselves.
So what of Chailly? Well, the generic word that comes to mind regarding tempi is 'flowing'. The days of heavy, glutinous Brahms is, hopefully, a thing of the past and most 'modern' conductors such as Rattle and the younger Chailly refuse to get stuck in the mud whilst eating suet pudding after a heavy roast beef dinner!
There is also passion aplenty at climaxes, notably the first movement of the Fourth Symphony and the end of the Second Symphony. There is glory aplenty in the First Symphony with perhaps the most moving solo oboe and violin playing I have ever heard in this beautiful movement. The Third Symphony, possibly the most difficult of the four to bring to life, is here given a truly golden performance where the third movement really glows.
The 'extras' are terrific too. The 'Haydn' Variations are given lots of character (another difficult work to both play and conduct) and there are little extras such as Brahms's first thoughts to the very beginning of the Fourth Symphony. A few seconds to be sure but a tiny insight into this most meticulous of composers working methods.
The presentation is, as one would expect from Decca, first rate with excellent notes and photos. If this appeals, don't hesitate.
on 7 October 2013
Some people think that Brahms was an unfeeling reactionary. With his beard, paunch and pipe, he certainly looks anything but cut and thrust. Schoenberg, on the other hand, called him the 'progressive'. And it's in that radical spirit that Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig perform his finest orchestral works on this new three-disc set.
Chailly puts into action what he describes as Brahms's 'new universe of sound', the complexity of which 'is even above Mahler and Bruckner'. Certainly Chailly is keen to let us hear those layers, though he's also unstinting in delivering real emotion impact. This is Brahms the true Romantic and the proto-Modernist.
It is well known that Brahms struggled even to start his First Symphony, let alone complete it, so haunted was he by the enormity of following in Beethoven's footsteps. He eventually overcame those doubts and instead flaunted the Austro-Germanic symphonic heritage in the C minor-major dialectic of the work. Following their own recent survey of Beethoven, Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester bring fresh attack to Brahms's homage. Chailly errs on the fast, though it pay dividends. Underpinned by tenacious timpani, the first movement presents a gripping struggle.
The middle movements are naturally more relaxed, though the first movement's tenacity comes through again in the chorale in the Andante and the third movement's budding premonitions of glory. Answering that foretaste, the Finale does not disappoint. Following a full-voiced horn call - with more than a dose of Siegfried - the C major theme has both nobility and resolve (so different from Jansons' recent back-footed approach). Throughout we're treated to lavish sound and gritty determination which then boil over in a thrilling coda.
The beginning of the Second Symphony will always appear more mute than its predecessor, yet the Gewandhausorchester's performance is no wallflower. The strings bring real snap to dotted rhythms, as well as beautiful line, with exquisite woodwind solos and richly voiced brass choruses. Chailly's constant attention to dynamic detail reaps further emotional rewards, while the crescendos show the strength of purpose that was evident in the First Symphony.
That force brims to the surface again in the Adagio, pushing towards a brisker Andante, before Chailly and the orchestra offer release in the graceful-cum-spirited third movement. Upping the theatrical ante again, Chailly begins the Finale with a daring whisper, laying the groundwork for later thrills, which deliver a baroque sense of occasion.
There's equal grandness and import about the way in which Chailly opens the Third Symphony - perhaps the finest performance in the set - imbuing its string arpeggios and clarinet flourishes with real panache. But there's heart here too, coming through in the lower strings' intense minor melody. More hesitant emotions characterise the slow movement, before these again build to something more potent. Some may prefer a more relaxed reading, though Chailly's zeal is certainly infectious.
More apposite to Chailly's emotional approach is the third movement, where the orchestra delivers each suspension like a painful memory. The little breaths and hesitations in the reprise of the Allegretto particularly tell, before the forces launch into a particularly staggering performance of the Finale - all barbed syncopations and staggering trumpet salvos - boiling over with thrilling ferocity, trumping even the most conflicted passages of the First Symphony. But there's hope here too and after Chailly has driven a particularly fierce bargain, that optimism weaves through the rapt coda.
At first that tension appears to have abated in the Fourth Symphony, feeling a little on the hasty side, leaving us unsure as to whether this performance will embrace both the Romantic and the Bachian. The strings are as lustrous as in any of the other Symphonies, but you may wander whether a little more space here and the frisson Abbado brings to the return of the first subject would reap more significant insights. Here Chailly's instincts don't feel completely right.
The tenderness and emotional truths of the other performances in this set, however, emerge again in the Andante, not least in the cello's heart-on-sleeve theme, performed with great warmth. And the third movement is a real riot of orchestral colour, proffering a wonderful trigger to the Finale, where the tensions Chailly has so keenly maintained across the cycle are born out in the struggles and glories of the Passacaglia.
Here we are given both sense of purpose and something more heart-rending, building to a tumultuous conclusion. The journey undertaken on this superb new set may, of course, not be to everyone's taste. It is certainly an intense ride, favouring up-front emotion instead of a more muted commentaries. But Chailly clearly sees Brahms as a fervent Romantic and one presaging the even more torrid language of his successors.
Added to which Decca provides a 'bonus' disc featuring a rich and noble rendition of the Haydn Variations, an oh-so-brooding Tragic Overture, lilting Liebeslieder Waltzes and a handful of other beautiful performed miniatures. With Klemperer, Karajan, Abbado, Haitink and a host of other greats in the library, Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester may have serious competition on their hands, but few other sets bring the progressive and highly emotional Brahms so brilliantly to life.
on 13 October 2013
As with all complete sets of symphonies, quartets, sonatas or whatever, it's usually possible to find better performances elsewhere of any individual piece. Kleiber's famous recording of the fourth with the VPO is still, I suppose, the best, and I like Harnoncourt in the second; perhaps Chailly could've taken a few more risks in the finales of nos. 2 and 3, where I miss the spontaneity of Furtwangler. Nonetheless, everything presented here is very very fine indeed, and I would say that this recording of the first symphony is probably the best on record.
On the whole, then, this is at the very least the most recommendable complete digital version. The orchestral sound is lithe, textures are incredibly clear, and the preparation was obviously meticulous. Each work unfolds in a way that leaves you in no doubt that the conductor has thought about it carefully over many years. I noticed details in the scoring that I hadn't before, or that hadn't been given their proper place in performances I'd heard to date. Yet nothing's exaggerated; there's no obvious micromanaging of the kind that can sometimes marr Harnoncourt's conducting, or any 'left of field' tempi or sonorities a la Gardiner. The detail is the result of careful thought, a virtuoso orchestra properly rehearsed, and a conductor who knows and loves the music and knows what he's doing. It's perhaps worth adding that the transcriptions of the Liebeslieder and piano pieces are hugely enjoyable too.
on 1 October 2014
The first thing to say is that this recording sounds tremendous, thanks both to wonderfully lucid engineering that allows you to hear almost everything and to the sound of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Those who heard the orchestra at the 2014 Proms will not be surprised to be told this. The principal oboe plays ravishingly, if with rather a lot of notes not fully centred in pitch. The next thing to say is that these are among the fastest Brahms symphonies on record; in six well-known cycles for which I have the timings, Chailly is the quickest in ten of the sixteen movements, allowing for the fact that he takes the first-movement repeats. My guess is that this approach stems from Chailly’s recent encounters with Beethoven, in which he has adopted a Rattle-like approach “informed” by “period style”. Those who dislike Brahms’s epic seriousness will probably approve, and the results are certainly bracing. The first movement of the Second Symphony sounds as if it is being done in one-in-a-bar, and the Third in two-in-a-bar. For me much of it is too rushed, and I felt at the end of several movements as if I had been jostled and harried along. The end of the First Symphony is an undignified sprint. The woodwind sound distinctly flurried in the second subject of the Third. The slow movement of the Second is lightweight; indeed the 12/8 section sounds like light music by Elgar. The third movement of the Third is very beautiful indeed (a fabulous diminuendo at one point), and the driving tempo of the finale is convincing, but there is insufficient relaxation into the sunlit glow of the ending. Here and elsewhere the music risks sounding perfunctory. Some will like this very much, but I’d be sorry to think that the influence of the so-called “authenticists” meant that we were no longer allowed to find depth and repose in Brahms. After that, the Fourth is unexpected, an intimate performance, played almost as chamber music. Even the great ending to the first movement doesn’t really catch fire and it certainly can’t be compared with Carlos Kleiber’s famous version in that respect.
The fill-ups – the three standard orchestral fillers, plus orchestrations of Hungarian Dances, some of the Liebeslieder Waltzes and two of the late piano pieces, as well as original versions of the opening of the Fourth Symphony (a 45-second track which is completely baffling unless you have read the booklet) and the slow movement of the First – are again good to listen to, but I can’t imagine listening to those orchestrations often, especially of the piano pieces which sound unrecognisable.
Throughout the set the playing is as precise in ensemble as any I have heard (Brahms’s rhythmic contrasts between twos and threes are amazingly clear), and even the exposed top violin notes are never ugly. These are impressive achievements, though it is easier to get the ensemble tight when a conductor allows as little flexibility as Chailly.
Brahms’s symphonies are probably open to a wider range of interpretation than most Romantic symphonists, and there is most certainly not one single right way of doing them. Chailly’s is obviously an important Brahms cycle, and it is very stimulating to hear, but these are not “central” interpretations.
on 5 November 2014
These are performances that make you sit up and question if you have ever really heard these works before.......
no matter how well you think you know them.
They are bursting with glorious playing and part writing I have not noticed before... and the energy and forward
propulsion are breath taking.
All the praise that has been heaped upon this issue is fully deserved.
Sadly, I had an issue with one of the discs .... by the supplier - david76297 - gave the best customer care I have come across for a very long time.
Do not hesitate to buy this set ....no matter how many Brahms Symphony Cycles you have.
on 13 December 2014
Slightly unexpected time signatures, but an authoratitive and and substantial working of these works. Are we at the beginning of a Brahms revival? They haven't been fashionable since Francoise Sagan's book, and may be due for a revival in these "interesting" times. This is the Brahms Symphonies for today.
on 17 October 2014
At some point it became fashionable to sneer at Brahms and see his output as stolid and unimaginative. I remember reading Hermann Hesse take a pop at him in 'Steppenwolf' from 1927. Benjamin Britten famously was less than enthusiastic calling the First Symphony "ugly and pretentious", the Second, "dull, ugly, gauch" [sic] (from Britten's diaries).
These new recordings from Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus surely dispel any lingering doubts about Brahms' achievements. The description of Chailly's approach being akin to an art restorer's wiping away the accretions of time from the surface of an Old Master painting to reveal the light and colour beneath are appropriate. The reputation for Brahms to be a dependable but unimaginative orchestrator are shown to be incorrect, the 'burnished autumnal' scoring more of a cliche than reality. I certainly felt his scoring was closer to Dvorak's masterly palette than I had previously imagined. I also enjoy the way Chailly gets Brahms to DANCE - he's a Romantic old rogue after all!
I may have preferences for other interpretations in individual symphonies - certainly I would not go without Abbado's impassioned performance of the First Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic - but as a boxset it is superb and deserves the awards it has garnered.
on 13 July 2014
This set immediately strikes you with the following attributes:
1 There is a very powerful and beautiful distinction between loud and soft passages. In loud we get a nice clear and powerful orchestra on full charge. In soft we nice delineated spacious acoustic orchestra with distinction of the various orchestral forces in play
2 The dynamics of the recording revealed very clearly the working of the beautiful orchestral that Brahms has created. Further enhanced is the clearly engineered Decca recording, and the point of details that Chailly has fully revealed.
3 The pulse and pushing forward of the Brahms symphonies on this recordings i consider to be perfect, there is no lag, its very dynamic with constant ebb and flow.
I own many set of Brahms recordings including Karajan 60, 70 and 80s, Klaus Tennstedt Sym 1, Klemperer 1-4 and Rattle 1-4, Kleiber 4. I would rate the Chailly in front of all the whole batch, three main reasons:
1 the clear modern recordings
2 pulse and beat of the music conducted by Chailly
3 the inner detail[s] that i had not spotted on other recordings
I have not mentioned CD 3 as i have not yet listened to that.
Conclusion based on Symphonies 1-4 only.
I love this set and would be prepared to dispense with all other sets and keep this one only. It has everything going for it. I note the CD's  come in a booklet form package type packaging, practical and very nice.
on 12 October 2014
I am a great 'fan' of Chailly and his superb Leipzig orchestra, particularly in Mahler symphonies - he seems to becoming more and more authoritative with each release - particularly with the quite superlative audio provided by those Blu-rays from Accentus (read Ian Giles wonderfully informative review of the Mahler 5). However Decca have issued two different versions of the Chailly Brahms. I have the Blu-ray 'pure audio' version. What a disappointment technically. First, there are 2 versions which, when decoded are identical - Dolby lossless HD & PCM 24 bit 2.0 - having both is a waste of the huge capacity of Blu-ray audio, meaning stereo only, no multichannel version. Also the 'pure audio' system should allow full control of the playback using the remote only - this is not possible on this issue. Sound is not particularly special, either. Blu-rays of same team playing Mahler on Accentus represent probably the best audio of any recordings I have heard, are multichannel or stereo and have HD video also.
I am not yet sure about the musical side of things - perhaps Ian Giles could give an authoritative comment. Personally, the Toscanini /Phlharmonia live recordings of the symphonies (London Royal Festival Hall, early 1950s) are still my favourites, despite being mono and much coughing in the audience. Release now on Testament delayed many years are there are errors in the trombones (apparently scared of Toscanini) and firecrackers let off - I wonder why? Musically lyrical and warm - see excellent review of 3 CD set on Amazon UK.
I have felt worried about how people may react to my review of this new Brahms cycle. I know that people may blacklist me for vouching for newer, slimmed-down presentations of classical music. I know that I shouldn't vouch for speed-crazed renditions of the music of the great composers that may cause coronary thrombosis and cardiac arrest. I also know that people might hate me for promoting the vacuous modernity of recent performances and recordings. However, the great benefit of Chailly's new Brahms and other recordings is to remove the stodge and gloopiness inherent in many prior recordings of orchestral music. Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra clearly make a winning team, and I hope that they will continue to make music together for as long as possible despite his commitments in La Scala. I am also hoping that Chailly will gladly continue to do more general-purpose orchestral music and not just focus on opera. This cycle is a focused, incisive, clear, probing, full-bodied and detailed rendition of the symphonies. The clear, spacious Decca sound is an added bonus to a cycle that can gladly take its place alongside Abbado and Sanderling.
Chailly nails his colours to the mast in his rendition of the First Symphony. Most of the time the performances of this symphony adopt ponderous tempo in the slow introduction. However the steady tread allows the music move with a single-minded purpose. This focus and clear sense of direction informs all four symphonies and the many fill-ups on the third disc. In the dramatic passages I can hear the textures clearly. The lyrical sections by contrast are songful and eloquent. In the various turbulent passages, notably the finale of the Third, I love the way that the strings are able to articulate their complicated figurations clearly and audibly. Chailly adjusts to the different moods of each symphony, bringing out the drama and lyricism wherever appropriate. As I am more familiar with the Third and Fourth, I noted that the performances wake up in these works. I loved the way that the first movement arrested me and offered a reminiscence to Schumann's Rhenish symphony. I loved the way that Chailly highlighted the shadowy, menacing passages in the second and fourth movements. The Fourth has warmth, sympathy and frisson that might call to mind Kleiber's Vienna version of 1980. In the Fourth I love how Chailly ties the finale to the first movement without sacrificing the sternness of the passacaglia that underpins the movement.
This Brahms cycle can comfortably take its place alongside the Abbado cycle and offer the listener a wonderful 21st century digital recording.