Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Beethoven: Egmont Overture (CD review)

Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.  DG 477 6404.

Beethoven pretty much intimidated everybody, and after his death composers were more than a bit reluctant to continue in the symphonic field.  Many of them felt that Beethoven had already said it all, and they were content to deal with concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and the like.  Brahms himself spent in excess of a dozen years mulling over the ideas for a symphony, finally revealing his Symphony No. 1 in 1876.  The public and critics hailed it a success, and it has more or less remained in the basic repertoire ever since.

So, the Brahms First Symphony is something of a historical precedent, which does not in my book necessarily make it a great piece of music.  I have always found the opening movement too messy, the Andante too overtly, lushly Romantic, and the third movement too boring, with only the Finale at all interesting, where Brahms saves up his big theme.  So shoot me; I'm not a purist.

Maestro Christian Thielemann does his best to inject some life into the piece, but he still manages only to drum up any serious fervor in the final chapter.  The keep case quotes a review of his live performances of the work saying they are "fiery," "menacing," "throbbing," "soaring," and "blistering."  I'm not sure those are the adjectives I would want to apply to any interpretation of Brahms.  Yet, I suppose you could say Thielemann does, indeed, work up a good head of steam in the opening and closing.  Unfortunately, I thought his steam escaped at the same pace and the same temperature throughout the four movements, so I would have liked a little more contact with the music itself and less emphasis on emotional melodrama.

Then there's the matter of the sound.  DG recorded Thielemann's Brahms First and the accompanying Beethoven Egmont Overture live in 2005.  As a comparison, I put on two old EMI recordings of the First, from Otto Klemperer (1956) and Adrian Boult (1973), and the sound I heard was like removing a couple of woolen blankets from the front of my speakers.  The DG audio is muffled and dull; it's dynamic, to be sure, but it's sorely lacking in high-end response, midrange transparency, and deepest bass.  The only saving grace of the live sound is the absence of applause at the end.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa