Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern. OEHMS Classics OC 408.

When I saw Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's name as conductor on this disc, I thought it might be a historical recording, perhaps one from the man's heyday with the Minnesota Symphony back in the Sixties and Seventies. I hadn't thought about him in years and figured he must have retired by now (if not passed away). Then I looked at the recording date: February, 2011. Yes, Maestro Skrowaczewski is very much alive and kicking and probably already planning to celebrate his ninetieth birthday with some new releases next year. It's good to have a musician of the old school still with us, and it's good to hear him conducting a traditional Romantic classic like the Brahms First. At least, we can expect a thoroughly informed interpretation from him.

Here's the thing with Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and his Symphony No. 1. He probably felt intimidated by Beethoven; after Beethoven's death, composers were reluctant to continue in the symphonic field where Beethoven left off. 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 spent in excess of a dozen years, from 1862-1876, deliberating over various ideas for his First Symphony, finally premiering it in 1876. The public and critics hailed it a success, and it has more or less remained in the basic repertoire ever since.

Here's another thing I have to confess: Of Brahms's four symphonies, I have never really cared for the First as much as the other three. While I recognize the symphony is something of a musical precedent, that does not in my book necessarily make it a great piece of music. I have always found the opening movement too busy, too messy; the Andante too overtly, lushly Romantic; and the third movement too humdrum. For me it is only the finale that is at all interesting, where Brahms saves up his big theme. Nevertheless, I'm always willing to listen to a good performance of the work, and there have been plenty of them over the years.

Contrary to what some conductors do, who begin slowly and build incrementally, Skrowaczewski gets the first movement off to a properly grand, almost majestic start, and then he slows the pace considerably and stays there for the duration. You certainly can't accuse him of hurrying the music because he caresses it with strength and care. His primary goal appears to be in clarifying every note and every phrase as though he's afraid we might miss something. At times, this means his approach may appear lethargic; but so be it. Oddly, though, I seem to recall his rendition of the same symphony with the Halle Orchestra some years ago being quite a bit more intense, but, unfortunately, I didn't have it any longer for comparison.

In any case, Skrowaczewski's new rendering is a bit different from most, and it doesn't really touch other, more-vigorous, more-exalted performances from people like Szell (Sony), Boult (EMI), Abbado (DG), Walter (Sony), Wand (RCA), Haitink (Philips), Mackerras (Telarc), and especially Klemperer (EMI). This new one, in fact, may appear too old-fashioned to appeal to everyone.

Understandably, the two inner movements benefit the most from Skrowaczewski's leisurely style, the second-movement Andante sostenuto particularly lovely and lyrical. The third movement, usually reserved for a quick-moving Scherzo, Brahms replaces with a gentle Allegretto, a kind of shepherd's hymn, and the conductor handles it without incident, providing a solid, perhaps even authoritative-sounding rendition.

Yet it's the finale we all wait for in the First, the high point of the symphony, the crowning glory with its instantly recognizable main theme bursting forth radiantly no matter who's conducting. Here, again, however, Skrowaczewski tends to be so cautious, or so excessively fastidious, taking the lead-up so slowly we have to wonder if the principal melody is ever going to appear. When it does, there is no denying its brilliance. Nevertheless, it tends to sound a tad mechanical compared to the way some of the aforementioned conductors handle it. So the work ends not quite on the high note it should but on sort of a hesitant stutter.

In short, if you're looking for ultimate electricity, vitality, or excitement in this symphony, you're probably not going to find it with Skrowaczewski. Instead, you'll find a dignified, carefully crafted reading of a noble rather than high-spiritual quality.

OEHMS Classics recorded the music at the Kongresshalle, Saarbr├╝cken, in, as I've said, February of 2011. The engineers obtain clean, transparent sonics, although with a slight forward edge to the upper midrange. Bass, treble, and dynamics are fine, if not terribly extraordinary, while stage depth and stereo spread sound quite impressive. It's a good, modern recording without quite rising to the highest of audiophile standards.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa