By John J. Puccio
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.
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.