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Brahms: Symphony No. 1 / Skrowaczewski, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie

Brahms / Skrowaczewski
Release Date: 11/15/2011 
Label:  Oehms   Catalog #: 408  
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Saarbrücken Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, cond; German RP Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern OEHMS OC 408 (52:00)

I have two nits to pick with this release, one with Skrowaczewski, the other, with Oehms. With regard to Skrowaczewski, his tempos initially seemed unusually deliberate or measured to me. But it wasn’t until I compared his reading to those by others that I realized just how slow his tempos really are. With repeat, his first movement is an expansive 18:12. Even if the repeat is skipped, most Read more recent performances come in at somewhere between 13 and 14 minutes, and even that, in my opinion, is too slow. On a remastered Pristine Audio CD of Felix Weingartner leading the London Symphony Orchestra in the Brahms First, the conductor whips through the first movement, without repeat, in 11:46. To stretch it out to more than 18 minutes, even with the repeat, takes some chutzpah.

With regard to Oehms, it’s unfortunate that the company didn’t see fit to offer something as filler. A disc with nothing else on it but the one symphony, leaving nearly 30 minutes unused, takes chutzpah of another kind.

Ordinarily, the first of these two grumbles regarding Skrowaczewski’s tempos would be sufficient grounds for me to pan this performance. But in this case, neither grievance can overshadow the fact that, slow tempos aside, this is one astoundingly hard-hitting, dramatically intense Brahms First, and one viscerally impactful and astonishingly revealing recording.

No reading of a score provides a better example than does Skrowaczewski’s of the axiom that the metronome is not the sole determinant in how we perceive the relationship between tempo and kinetics. There is such thrust, tension, and sheer dynamism to this performance that it sweeps you up and carries you with it on a cresting wave that never breaks. Moreover, while Skrowaczewski adopts tempos in all four movements that are more moderately paced than one might wish, his tempo relationships, both internally within movements and externally between movements, feel absolutely right. The gear shifts, for example, between the first movement’s opening Un poco sostenuto and the ensuing Allegro , between the 2/4 and 6/8 sections of the third movement, and between the Adagio introduction and the Allegro of the last movement are perfectly judged.

The Saarbrücken orchestra, too, besides turning in a performance that can match any world-class ensemble in technical execution, lends its own sound coloration to what we normally hear from the internationalized, homogenized major American and European orchestras. Perhaps it has something to do with the city’s long pre-World War II association with France. The oboes, for instance, will be noted for their somewhat pungent tone, giving them a bit of piquancy that I find both distinctive and characterful. Also, the horns and trombones in the famous “sunrise” transition passage leading to the main Allegro in the last movement are not as mellow and blended as they are in many familiar ensembles, the result being that one actually hears the different tonal properties, as well as the individual notes, of each instrument.

This brings me to the recording, which opens up Brahms’s score and penetrates its innermost workings as I’ve never heard them before. Timpani strokes and pizzicatos in the string basses and cellos have a firm, full-bodied physicality to them that lend a deep, visceral presence to the sonic image; even the high-lying violin pizzicatos that so often sound tinny, hollow, and choked are here reproduced with resonant solidity. But most amazing of all to me are the contrapuntal details visible in the score that I don’t think I’ve ever heard brought out in a recording. Just one such example occurs in bars 273–281 in the first movement, where the violas shift to the treble clef and are divided. It isn’t that Skrowaczewski places undue emphasis on the violas at this point to bring out the added richness of the texture; rather, it’s that the recording picks it up and allows it to register, which, I’m guessing points to a multimiking setup. The recording was made in February 2011 in Saarbrücken’s Kongresshalle, and a booklet photo of the full orchestra—including its harp, tambourine, and cymbals, which, of course, aren’t used in the Brahms—appears to number around 80 players.

In the end, though I might have preferred that Skrowaczewski move things along a little faster and that Oehms had included something else on the disc, like one of Brahms’s overtures, this is such a riveting performance and such a fantastic recording that I’m prepared to say that neither of these quibbles matters. Of recent, modern Brahms Firsts to come my way, this one is more than recommendation worthy; it’s a must-buy testimonial.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Saarbrücken Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1876; Austria 
Date of Recording: February, 2011 
Venue:  Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern 

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