Brahms in Cinemascope: Andris Nelsons and the BSO’s New Symphony Cycle

Brahms’ Symphonies

As you can see from the subtitle of my blog, I’m a huge Brahms fan.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been that happy with most of the Brahms symphony cycles recorded in the last 30 years. To be fair, even more than for other composers, the legacy left by the glorious recordings of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Walter, and even Toscanini, made it not easy to do something better (except for the recording quality).

We’ve had some very modern light “HIP” approaches from Gardiner and Dausgaard, both of which I appreciate as they give a very fresh point of view, and benefit especially the lighter middle symphonies (I consider 1 & 4 the heavyweights).

But unfortunately, most of the recent complete symphony recordings didn’t impress me much (see also this post where I was desperately, and in vain, searching for a modern reference of the 1st symphony). The only box I like (and still, not for every symphony) is Riccardo Chailly’s cycle with the Gewandhaus, which takes a nice middle way between the heavy romantic recordings of the past and the HIP inspired gut-string recordings of today.

Andris Nelsons

I’m a big fan of Andris Nelsons since he took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I put his Shostakovich into my best albums for 2016. I even specifically mentioned in said blog post about Brahms 1 that I was hoping for a new reference recording to come from Nelsons and the BSO.

Well, my wishes have been heard. The BSO has recently released their first full Brahms cycle. And I must admit I initially didn’t plan on buying it. The album is not available for streaming on my favorite streaming provider (except for the 4th), and the 1st is so critical to me that I didn’t want to buy blindly.

Well, then the September 2017 issue of Gramophone comes out, and gives it an “Editor’s choice”. I haven’t always been in agreement with Gramophone recently (see my comments about the 2017 Gramophone awards), but an Editor’s choice still means something. Then I started googling and also found this excellent review by John Marks, formerly with Stereophile.

So there you had me. I bought the box blindly.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO Classics 2017)

 

Brahms: The Symphonies - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra 24/192

So, what do you get?

Well, let me start by saying, if you like Brahms, you need to have this box. Nelsons takes the learnings from the great classics, mixes in the beautiful BSO sound, and brings a very beautiful Brahms style to life.

I’d call it Cinemascope, as you really see all the colors, on a very big screen. His approach is never rushed. You get to see all the fine details that Brahms managed so well.

Let’s talk about the individual symphonies, and let’s take them backwards.

Symphony No. 4

I’ve mentioned above that No. 4 is one of the two heavyweights for me. I particularly love the variations of the fourth. I’ve mentioned Nelsons taking it relatively slow. He takes 10:08 for this movement. This is not yet the 11:29 of a Bruno Walter, but also not the 9:35 of a John Eliot Gardiner, or even the 9:23 of a Chailly (interestingly, Furtwängler uses 9:47, starting slowly but accelerating over time, which works for me).

But, this music can take the tempo. There is so much going on in these fantastic variations, and Nelson lays it all out in front of you. And he keeps the power during the entire movement, which isn’t easy.

Symphony No. 3

Going one back to no. 3: here the heavier approach works, but not as well as for no. 4. It gives the famous Poco Allegretto (known from movies and commercials) an even more sentimental character. In some way this speed, with the tremolo of the violins, makes the quiet anti-climax of the ending sound like we’ve just moved directly into a Wagner opera.

Brahms wasn’t a particular fan of Wagner, but actually this shows that while they may have disagreed on structure, there are more similarities between the two than you’d think.

Symphony No. 2

Symphony no. 2 is sometimes considered Brahms’ Pastorale. And here is where I have my biggest problem with the slower tempo, it tends to take away some of the lightness of this music. Here I’d much rather have a Chailly or Gardiner. That said, it is still a beautiful recording.

Symphony No. 1

And now let’s move to symphony no. 1, my absolute favorite of the four (here’s why). And you’ve probably guessed it by now: Nelson’s style is just perfect for this romantic work.

My appreciation of any interpretation of this symphony is often already formed in the first seconds: the chromatic increased with the dramatic tympani needs to grab me immediately (as do Furtwängler and Klemperer), otherwise, I’m already lost. Nelsons takes a very special approach here, the tension is there but he doesn’t release it yet. Beautifully done. Movements 2 and 3 are nice, but basically just fillers between movements 1 and 4. The finale really summarizes what I love about Brahms. A lot of variation and developments (you never know what comes next), and then so outstandinly beautiful moments as the famous horn solo (at 2:56 for Nelsons), followed by the even more amazing melody of the cellos (at 5:12).

It is still a bit too early days, but this has the potential to become my new modern reference version of Brahms 1.

My rating: 5 stars.

I was hesitating a bit, as you’ve seen above that not all of the four performances are 5 stars to me (1 and 4 certainly are, 3 up to a point, 2 would “only” be 4 star), but this is overall a very convincing new reading of the Brahms classics. Check it out!

You can find it here (BSO website) and here (Qobuz)

My Reflections on the 2017 Gramophone Awards – Part II

This is the continuation of Part I of my musings about the 2017 Gramophone Awards.

I had a to-do from this entry, which was to check out Hervé Niquet´s latest Cherubini album.

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems – Hervé Niquet – Le Concert Spirituel (Alpha 2017)

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems pour Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette Hervé Niquet - Le Concert Spirituel Alpha 2017

Not surprisingly for a Hervé Niquet album, this one is really good. I´m not such a big fan of Cherubini in general, but this one is really with checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

I´ll skip the opera section, as I´m not really an opera expert in the first place, and didn’t find anything too interesting in this section to try out.

Orchestral

Haydn: Il Distratto – Haydn 2032 no. 4 – Giovanni Antonini – Il Giardino Armonico

Haydn 2032 no. 4 Il Distratto Giovani Antonini Il Giardino Armonico

Antonini´s Haydn is as good as ever. This has the potential of being the reference Haydn cycle of the 21st century (but we´ll have to wait another 15 years to find out). See my review of vol. 3. My rating: 4 stars (this is absolute 5 star playing, but I just can´t get myself to give a Haydn symphony 5 stars…)

I’m going to skip Mahler´s 10 by Dausgaard. I´m not enough of a fan of the 10th (which isn’t a complete symphony in the first place) to be able to give a proper judgment here.

Shostakovich Symphonies No. 5 and 9 – Nelsons – Boston Symphony (DG 2017)

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9 - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra

This was part of my own top 5 albums of 2016, and yes, this is true 5 star territory!

I´m going to skip again over Sibelius 3 & 6 by Vänskä, I´m not familiar enough with Sibelius symphonic work to really be able to judge. But everybody I know that knows something about Sibelius tends to recommend the Vänskä cycle, so I assume there must be something to it.

Vasily Petrenko´s Tchaikovsky get´s a second recommendation here (after the violin concerto which didn’t impress me much). And sorry, the Pathetique again isn´t my cup of tea, so no comment from my side here. Same comment applies to Bychkov´s recording of the same work, you´ll have to look elsewhere for a review of this.

I´m going to skip over Recital and Solo Vocal categories as well. The only album that appealed to me in the former is Anett Fritsch´s Mozart album, which is quite well done, but for me no match to Sabine Devielhe´s solo album last year.

And in the Solo Vocal, Goerne´s Brahms album is a no brainer, as I love his voice, but again I don’t feel comfortable enough properly reviewing Lieder, this is still a territory I need to explore slowly and cautiously. I´m sure I´ll get there eventually

Conclusion

So, there you have it. As you can see from my two posts here, I´m not fully convinced by this year´s selection.

Is there anything you must buy?

I´d say, the only must-haves in this selection are the Shostakovich with Nézet-Séguin, Perahia´s French Suites, and Suzuki´s c-minor mass (with Gardiner´s Matthew Passion just behind).

Faust´s violin concertos, Antonini´s Haydn, and Niquet´s Cherubini are a very good recording of only nice to have (to my ears) music.

I´d probably pass on most of the others.

What do you think? Am I completely off? Anything I´ve missed? Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!