4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2014
As if to support the notion that Russian conductors don't get Brahms, Valery Gergiev maundered his way through Sym. 1 and 2, and now his younger countryman Vladimir Jurowski improves on the situation, but only just. In the postwar era it took decades before a post-Soviet conductor, Mikhail Pletnev, released a complete Beethoven symphony cycle suitable for an international audience (on DG), but I don't know of the same for Brahms, excepting concert readings under Mravinsky, which are certainly convincing despite dodgy sound; a Melodiya release of the four symphonies under Svetlanov didn't gain much traction in the West.
The influx of Russian conductors to the West has increased the visibility of their musical tradition. A survey of several thousand broadcast concerts from Europe and the Us showed that Prokofiev is being programmed as much as Mendelssohn, and the Rachmaninov First and Third Sym. are becoming almost as much a staple as the popular Second. but Jurowski knows that he's expected to conduct the Austro-German classics.
Here the Brahms Third and fourth get vigorous, often propulsive readings at a high level of assured accomplishment. Maybe this is the "new Brahms," but the whole enterprise feels one-dimensional. One thing Brahms is, musically and emotionally, comes down to layering and half-lights. They are missing here. I shouldn't lay the lack down to Russian-ness. Weingartner and Toscanini were impatient with the overlays in Brahms. In the first movement of the Third, Jurowski is so headlong that this could be updated Toscanini, except that to his credit, he doesn't adopt Toscanini's rigid metronomic phrasing.
but then the second movement is turned into another Allegro, barely indicating a change of mood (the marking is Andante), which sets the score up for having three movements in a row without sufficient variety in the pacing. the London Phil. made a Brahms cycle under Marin alsop that got a good reception; it was conventional to a fault, so perhaps it's better that Jurowski has ideas. The Scherzo is the best movement so far, lifted on a buoyant, flexible rhythm that makes it feel vibrant. I like the fact tha the finale is taken as a real Allegro, but there are shades of mystery at the outset that get entirely overlooked.
Jurwoski joins Chailly in presenting Brahms as a composer who needs saving from himself by tarting up the speed and reducing the romantic longing, but I don't agree. there's a live Brahms third on ICA, a recent release that fills out the gaps of those two conductors. Ironically, it's conducted by a Russian, Evgeny Svetlanov. If a composer has depth, aren't we obliged to explore it?
The Fourth begins at a traditional pace with more flexible phrasing, adding to the appeal of the performance. The first movement is an iconic example of ebb and flow, which Jurowski captures well. He also senses that the symphony is cast on a heroic scale, something that Chailly misses. I was thoroughly convinced, even if I prefer the evident struggle that Bernstein finds in the Fourth. by that standard, he wrestles with the angel of death in the slow movement while Jurowski hums a lullaby to it. but he's on secure ground with the long, singing line he wants to sustain, and that's half the battle.
The Scherzo of the Fourth plays itself under any competent conductor. Jurowski's is one of the fastest I've encountered, but he balances the sound to bring out those disturbing interjections in the basses and timpani. You don't often hear this movement played for thrills, but here it works. The finale represents one of Brahms's greatest achievements as a classicist (he goes back to Bach's organ works for the passacaglia form writ large) enveloped in Romantic intensity. Jurowski captures the intensity and delivers a forward-moving reading in bold colors. But the lack of a deeper dimension is still felt.
In all, these are crowd--leasing performances - and critic-pleasing,too, to judge by the London notices - well worth hearing. I'd place them considerably above Alsop's and above Jurowski's previous Brahms first and Second. I don't feel however, that real justice is done to Brahms's emotional and musical depths.