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Brahms: Symphonies No 1 & 2 / Jurowski

Brahms / Schoeman / Lpo / Jurowski
Release Date: 02/23/2010 
Label:  Lpo   Catalog #: 43   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 26 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Symphonies: No. 1; 1 No. 2 2 Vladimir Jurowski, cond; London PO LPO 0043 (2 CDs: 85:47) Live: Royal Festival Hall 1 5/25/2008, 2 9/27/2008

A man walks into a men’s clothing store. A salesman approaches him and asks if he can be of assistance. “Yes,” the man replies, “I’m looking for a green suit.” A Read more bit taken aback, the salesman can only offer his apology: “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have any green suits.” The sales manager who is standing off to the side and overhears this exchange, calls the salesman over and says to him, “Murray, the man wants a green suit, so turn on the green light.” Problem solved, or at least until the customer sees the suit he was just sold in the light of day.

In a strange way, I was reminded of this story as I listened to Vladimir Jurowski’s approach to Brahms’s First Symphony. Generations of his forerunners and most of his peers have struggled with the problem of how to make the tempo relationship between the opening Un poco sostenuto and the ensuing Allegro sound natural and in some way metrically related. But not Jurowski, for he has solved the long vexing problem. With the flip of a switch, he turns on the green light, and presto, problem gone.

What Jurowski does is to ignore Brahms’s Un poco sostenuto marking, or at least to interpret it so freely that the tempo is sped up to virtually match the Allegro, thus lending the impression that the entire first movement is of a single continuous pace. If your heart was beating as fast as the timpani in the opening measures, your doctor would surely prescribe medication to slow it down. Ironically, I’ve complained on numerous occasions that tempos, especially in Brahms’s symphonies, have grown too slow. It was an issue for me in the recently reviewed Rattle Brahms cycle in which, without the first movement repeat in the First Symphony, the conductor takes 13:59. Jurowski, who, to his credit, does take the repeat, clears the finish line in 14:51. That’s just 53 seconds longer to repeat the entire exposition. To compare Jurowski’s reading with Neville Marriner’s with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields—a version I’ve held in high regard and recommended repeatedly as exemplary of modern Brahms playing—the first movement, also with repeat, is dispatched in 15:46, almost a full minute longer than Jurowski’s, and it’s by no means slow. Without having heard every single recording of Brahms’s First ever made, I can’t say with any assurance that Jurowki’s is the fastest on record, but it has got to be in the running.

On repeated hearings, one adjusts to the breathlessness of the thing, but I found myself chafing at another interpretive mindset that was ultimately more disturbing. Depending on your point of view, you could say that Jurowski has either been heavily influenced or infected by the period-instrument movement. There is something lightweight, lacking in gravitas, and superficial about this performance. Perhaps the venue and/or the recording are partially at fault, but the impression is one of the full symphonic heft of the London Philharmonic having been scaled back and the musicians asked to skim the surface instead of giving rein to their tonal bloom. The result is the “Mozartification” of Brahms, an approach I liken to period-instrument performances of late 19th-century music that is more appropriate to music of the late 18th century. The audience responds at the end with a single shouted bravo; otherwise, the applause is well-mannered and hardly what I would call wild or exuberant.

The Second Symphony poses no tempo juxtaposition like the one encountered in the First, so Jurowski has no need for a green-light solution to a nonexistent problem. Overall, everything about this reading seems more normal and falls nicely into place. Performing and recording the Second four months later, the conductor has apparently had time to rethink his approach. That, and perhaps a less foggy day improved the acoustic environment inside the Royal Albert Hall for the musicians and recording team alike. Whatever the cause, the London Philharmonic sounds back to its usual self, and Jurowski allows the players ample freedom to flex their considerable collective muscle. And yes, the first-movement exposition repeat is observed.

Much of the difference of course is dictated by the music itself—the First Symphony, tense, gripping, stirring, and tragic up until its triumphant ending; the Second Symphony, lyrical and rhapsodic, interrupted by flashes of dramatic urgency, and going out in a rousing blaze of D-Major glory. The LPO plays magnificently, and everything Jurowski does is calculated to coax that magnificent sound from the ensemble and to cradle Brahms’s lovechild in his arms. Listen, for example, to the diminuendo and catch-of-the-breath pause just before the end of the Allegretto grazioso (Quasi andantino) third movement—of such a special, radiant beauty—and to the ebullient outburst when the full orchestra enters after the hushed beginning of the Allegro con spirito last movement. You can measure the difference in the audience’s enthusiastic and sustained ovation at the end.

The good news is that even though the two symphonies come twinned in a two-CD set, other multi-disc LPO releases are usually offered at a reduced price, and I would expect this one to be, too. So even if you are not enamored of Jurowski’s Brahms First, as I am not, his Second is one of the very best among recent entries, and well worth the investment.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1876; Austria 
Date of Recording: 05/25/2008 
Venue:  Live  Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall, 
Length: 43 Minutes 36 Secs. 
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877; Austria 
Date of Recording: 09/27/2008 
Venue:  Live  Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall, 
Length: 41 Minutes 28 Secs. 

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