Brahms: Symphonies 1-4 - Bychkov
Avie Records AV2051 (3 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Brahms: Complete Symphonies
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
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Review by John Broggio - January 2, 2007
This is, surprisingly for all the Beethoven & Mahler symphonies on SACD, the only complete set of Brahms' four symphonies. Unlike many sets issued these days, there are no "fillers" in the form of his shorter orchestral works (or other more imaginative approaches that one could envisage) - which makes this set comparatively expensive in the world of today (SA-CD or not).
On disc 1, we are given an expansive and highly intense account of the first symphony. The exposition repeat is observed but the unrelenting detail that Bychkov demands ensures that this does not become an organic part of the structure but rather jumps out at the listener in a less than entirely convincing manner. The intense feeling that the concentration on accents gives, somewhat subsides in the middle two movements but this is far removed from the serenity and flights of fantasy that more successful accounts can conjure from the material. Unlike the many enjoyable performances I have heard of this symphony (both in concert and on disc), there is little joy to be found in the finale; the notes are simply presented in far too much of a matter-of-fact style to put a smile on ones face. In the end, the unrelenting intensity means that the drama becomes diminished through a lack of contrast.
On disc 2, the situation is fortunately very different - with Bychkov seemingly overcome by the pastoral beauty present; the dark clouds lurking are of course billowing but here there is the contrast in expressive terms that so eluded the performance of the first symphony. Again, the exposition repeat of the first movement is observed but here it is woven neatly into the fabric of the work. The troubled slow movement is eloquently played without being forced and the scherzo is playful in a way that one might think impossible after the first symphony. The finale is performed with great vigour and a sense of joy that is altogether quite uplifting.
On disc 3, the final two symphonies are combined in a generously filled disc, which are helpfully separated by a 25 second pause; if only more companies could follow this example from Avie. Opening with the powerful chords that proclaim Brahms' 3rd symphony, the mood quickly relaxes in the sunnier music yet regains the forward thrusting motion inherent in the complex cross-rhythms. The elegiac slow movement is tenderly and lovingly played before the third movement is eloquently performed. The whispering start to the finale quickly gives way to an explosion of sound that makes one appreciate Hans Richters tag of Brahms' Eroica to this work - marvellous stuff. The coda is well handled, with a pleasing relaxation that reminds one of the turbulence that has preceded this moment of hard-won calm. The great fourth symphony is powerfully played but suffers (although not as much) like the first symphony from a relentless emphasis on the accents in the first movement. The soulful slow movement is played straight but not in a boring way and the lively scherzo is given a performance full of zest. The finale is one of those towering variation movements that (coincidentally?) have been included in major composers last completed symphonic works (Beethoven and Mahler are but two others). Whilst this is not the white-hot experience that some conductors have made of this score, Bychkov keeps the momentum going until he builds up to a thunderous finale.
Throughout the sound is beautifully clear - one would never guess that it had been taped from concerts over a period of 2 years. The WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln plays marvellously throughout (except when goaded into excess).
All in all, largely recommendable with the second and third symphonies perhaps being the most enjoyable, the first the least. I'm sure that in the future, other accounts will displace individual symphonies but for now there is little option if one is a big Brahms fan.
Copyright © 2007 John Broggio and HRAudio.net