Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Tragic Overture. Herbert Blomstedt, Gewandhausorchester. Pentatone PTC 5186 850.

By John J. Puccio

First, the good: The music is beyond reproach, the Brahms First being among the most-recognizable symphonies in the classical world. The conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, is beyond reproach at age ninety-one when he made this recording and one of the world’s leading ensemble directors as well as one of the world’s leading authorities on the music of Brahms. The orchestra is beyond reproach, the Gewandhaus Orchestra being one of the oldest orchestras (some would argue THE oldest) in the world and certainly one of the grandest. And the record company is beyond reproach, Pentatone having given us any number of fine albums since their founding in 2001.

The bad? Well, that may be even more a matter of opinion. Pentatone chose to record the music live. Usually, that means a close-up recording with occasional audience noise and inevitable applause. I was prepared for the worst, but Pentatone’s engineers provide a live recording that, thankfully, doesn’t sound too much like live. So even the bad is pretty good.

Johannes Brahms ((1833-1897) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 over a period of more than a dozen years, premiering it in 1876. The opening Allegro is tempestuous, crowded, energetic, with various themes, including a “fate” motif, a series of modulations, what has been referred to as “a shocking digression,” a restatement of the exposition, and, finally, a peaceful ending.

The second movement Andante is probably most notable for its solo passages from the oboe and violin. The third movement Allegretto is notable for squeezing in so much detail into so little space. Then the fourth movement finally gives us a memorable tune to hang our hats on and goes out in a triumphant flourish.

Allow me here to quote myself from a review I wrote well over a decade ago: “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 as one of the first important symphonies since Beethoven, 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 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.”

Oddly, perhaps, I love Brahms’s Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies, where the composer seems to have learned a lesson from his first attempt at symphonic writing and settled into a more coherent and more tuneful pattern (although he never outdid himself with the First Symphony’s closing theme).

Anyway, of more importance than my personal feelings about the music, how does Maestro Blomstedt and his formidable orchestral forces handle all of this? Well enough, actually, especially for a fellow in his nineties, that you’d think might produce a really slow, ponderous reading of the “mature” type. But, in fact, it isn’t. Now, the performance isn’t in the same league, mind you, as my favorites: Otto Klemperer (EMI/Warner), who takes a firmer, more cohesive stand, and Sir Adrian Boult (EMI), who gives us a kinder, gentler, yet still quite imposing reading. By comparison, Blomstedt’s approach is grand but not too leisurely, mature but not to the point of tedium. It’s a measured interpretation in which the conductor tries his best to keep everything together and move it along at a healthy, if stately pace. Boring, it is not. Head and shoulders above everything else, it is not. Serviceable, it is.

The opening movement is the most like Beethoven of the symphony’s four movements, and Blomstedt plays it that way, with an emphasis on the “fate” motif and the ominous mood of the Fifth Symphony. Although I thought Blomstedt needed to give it a bit more energy for weight and authority, he plays it in a thoughtful fashion. Brahms interrelates the second and third movements, which Blomstedt nicely connects, making the transition from one to another seem almost seamless. Of course, this does nothing to dispel my feeling that both movements are rather prosaic. Which leaves Blomstedt with the finale, and it is the only movement I felt he handled a bit too slowly. It needs more fire after a somewhat labored introduction. Yet when the conductor reaches the main theme, he does open it up affectionately, and the music comes as a welcome relief from the darkness that came before. It wraps up a good performance that, unfortunately, still does not make its way to the heavens.

Coupled with the symphony is Brahms’s Tragic Overture. I enjoyed Blomstedt’s take on this work more than I did his work with the First. Brahms called the piece a “dramatic” overture, in contrast to the cheerful character of his Academic Overture, written the same year. From strong rhythmic development to funeral march, Blomstedt steadies the music and guides it to an agreeably harmonious conclusion.

What’s more, the Gewandhaus Orchestra never sounded more imposing. I’ve never heard them in person, but on disc in their own hall they have always sounded rich, mellow, golden in tone, and luxuriously resplendent. In this Pentatone recording, you can lay that out in spades. They sound glorious and fully up to the task of performing like one of the great orchestras of the world.

Producers Ranaud Loranger and Bernhard Gutler and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music live at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany in September and October 2019. Unlike so many of Pentatone’s recordings, which are presented in hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD, this one is a regular CD in two-channel only. And unlike so many live recordings, this one as I’ve said doesn’t really sound live, nor is there any applause or audience noise involved. The sound is smooth, a trifle close but not in the conductor’s lap, and moderately reverberant. The Gewandhaus imparts a mild ambient bloom to the proceedings, enough to make the orchestra appear full and natural. In terms of naturalness, in fact, the sound is warm and lifelike, one of the best, most listenable live recordings I’ve heard in ages.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa