Maestro Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig continue their integral Brahms symphonies project with a recording of the composer’s Second Symphony in D Major, alongside his Academic Festival Overture. Although idyllic and pastoral at first sight, Brahms himself remarked that he had “never written anything so sad”. Blomstedt and the orchestra bring out all the different moods and colors of this exceptional work, while the Academic Festival Overture provides a jubilant, glorious conclusion. Blomstedt’s work as a conductor is inseparably linked to his religious and human ethos, and his interpretations combine great faithfulness to the score and analytical precision with a soulfulness that awakens the music to pulsating life. In the more than sixty years of his career, he has acquired the unrestricted respect of the musical world. The Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is the oldest civic orchestra in the world with a glorious history, and is still counted among the world’s leading ensembles. Their PENTATONE debut with Brahms’ First Symphony and Tragic Overture (2020) received rave reviews.
Herbert Blomstedt’s new recording of the Brahms Second Symphony and Academic Festival Overture improves markedly on his prior Gewandhaus Orchestra version of Symphony No. 1. That previous release was frankly dull. While not perfect, this performance of the Second has plenty of the impetus and energy lacking in its predecessor–at least after the first movement. Here, unfortunately, for all the care Blomstedt takes with balances and with maintaining the long, singing line, we find the same softness of attack and diffuseness of rhythm as previously. In short, the whole thing sounds too “nice,” especially in the development section’s gnarly passages involving the trombones.
After this, however, the performance is wholly gorgeous, with an Adagio non troppo of effortless nobility, a delectable Allegretto grazioso, and an uplifting finale that contains everything missing from the first movement. I particularly admire how, at the very end, Blomstedt allows us to hear the violins’ stratospheric ostinato figure without suppressing the trumpets. It really is a miracle of balance, and a thrilling moment when done correctly. That makes it all the more frustrating that Blomstedt couldn’t have given the first movement a similar jolt when Brahms asks for it.
The Academic Festival Overture has all of the virtues of the symphony’s finale. It’s buoyant, uninhibited, yet perfectly balanced and full of exuberant joy. It doesn’t get any better. The orchestra plays fabulously, and the sonics have both clarity and warmth. Others may not share my reservations regarding the first movement, but regardless, it’s clear that Blomstedt is still a force to be reckoned with, even at such an advanced age.
– ClassicsToday.com (David Hurwitz)