Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Beethoven: Symphony No. 1. Gunter Wand, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Profil PHO6044.

In his golden years, conductor Gunter Wand seemed to record the works of the same few composers over and over again, particularly Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Schubert. Practice makes perfect, I suppose, and in the 1980's and 90's, Wand certainly got enough practice. Of course, he had been perfecting his performances over a lifetime, the man passing in 2002 when he was about ninety years old. The performances contained on this disc he recorded in 1994 and 1997 in live concerts.

The Brahms First Symphony (1876) is the big gun of the duo, and Wand conducts a commendably mature, restrained, and highly cultured version of it. Not that there is anything sedate or "old" sounding about the interpretation. It has plenty of zip when it's needed, and the finale, especially, is quite exhilarating. The two inner movements are lovely as well, the third movement, usually reserved for a quick-moving Scherzo replaced by a gentle Allegretto, a shepherd's tune that segues nicely into the final movement, with its big, familiar central melody. Not that I'm overly fond of the Brahms First, but this interpretation comes off as well as one could want. However, this is not a fiery, throbbing, soaring performance of the sort that Christian Thielemann recorded with the same orchestra years later for DG, nor is it the kind of grand architectural gem that Klemperer put forth for EMI; it's a more of a reasoned, refined, old-line approach.

But it's really the Beethoven First Symphony (1800) I enjoyed most. Here, Wand let himself go a bit more, the earlier composer's music sounding more joyous and spontaneous. The coupling is particularly apt as Brahms was always afraid his symphonies would never measure up to Beethoven's. Although he was right, the fellow came close.

As I mentioned, Wand made the recordings live, but, fortunately, they do not have the typically recessed sonics of a live recording. The sound is pleasant without being in any way remarkable or spectacular. The audio is slightly soft and warm, miked reasonably close up, well spread out across the speakers, and nicely balanced. Played too loudly, you'll hear a small degree of strain and harshness in the upper strings, but it's hardly anything worth bothering about. And there is no noise from the audience until the unfortunate outburst of applause at the end of each selection.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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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