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Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4
Johannes Brahms, Christoph von Dohnányi, Philharmonia Orchestra of London
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4
Genre: Classical


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All Artists: Johannes Brahms, Christoph von Dohnányi, Philharmonia Orchestra of London
Title: Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4
Members Wishing: 0
Total Copies: 0
Label: Signum UK
Original Release Date: 1/1/2008
Re-Release Date: 10/28/2008
Album Type: Import
Genre: Classical
Style: Symphonies
Number of Discs: 2
SwapaCD Credits: 2
UPC: 635212013229

CD Reviews

Brahms-Dohnanyi Redux: Syms 2 & 4: A new, second series with
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 03/04/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Here we get two discs for the price of one, one disc devoted to symphony two, the other to symphony four. The band is the venerable Philharmonia of London, originally founded by EMI executive Walter Legge in pursuit of his high ideals of a hand-picked, virtuoso, world-class ensemble. The original leaders of this stereo golden era orchestra included Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan (he passed through, on his way to being designated Berlin music director for life with a companion big guest welcome in Vienna), and the esteemed Italian Carlo Maria Giulini. Toscanini disciple Guido Cantelli would no doubt have been tapped to occupy the third position that became something like the designated Giulini seat (provided that Legge would have been able to woo Cantelli, winning over competitors among a number of other famous musical institutions already clamoring for more of Cantelli's talent - the NY Phil waiting in the wings no doubt); but Cantelli unfortunately died an early death in a plane crash at age 36 years. From his available recordings with the Philharmonia or NBC Symphony, Cantelli would have been a formidable inspiration, indeed.

Inevitably this disc evokes comparisons and such. The Philharmonia has already recorded fine Brahms readings - under Guido Cantelli (Sym 3), Otto Klemperer, and Carlo Maria Giulini. Thomas Sanderling also led the band in a complete set on RS, with high and very musically satisfying results. The old EMI Giulini set has long been one of my fav shelf markers, starting back when it was a set of vinyl long plays, and keeping on into the compact disc era. This is Christoph von Dohnanyi's second outing with the symphonies, too. He did a stellar complete set for Warner Teldec with Cleveland. Before I finish this review, I will get out some of the comparisons to refresh my memory.

My touchstone in the second symphony starts with Pierre Monteux leading the Vienna Philharmonic. (That performance is now mainly available in a Decca Originals box, but worth seeking out, as it is one of Monteux's finest recordings.) Then I went on to Giulini and the Philharmonia (later, also in Vienna), Szell with Cleveland, Bruno Walter with the Los Angeles contract band organized to record with him by CBS west coast. Then, Kurt Sanderling with the Berlin SO landed on the fav shelves, still. I even went so far as to get Maazel with Cleveland. Haitink with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. (No, to the Boston second repeat, and the LSO third repeat Brahms series.) Then, Celibidache with Munich on EMI and with Stuttgart RSO on DGG. Include the HIP readings with Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players. Somewhere in there I also got hold of Leinsdorf and the Boston SO. I fell under the unexpected surprise spell of Maurice Abravanel in Utah. Then, the younger Levine with Chicago - almost a throw away set, recorded in the extra studio time left over after Levine happened to finish early while he was doing Mahler symphonies for RCA (which became BMG, and is now Sony BMG). A very special second symphony is Stokowski with the National Phil on CBS Sony, or Cala in the Stokowski Society series.

This additional reading by Dohnanyi compares favorably with his Teldec Warner Cleveland set. The Philharmonia London is still the world-class ensemble which Legge intended it to be at its founding. A whole slew of big-time conductors have kept it going, and von Dohnanyi only stands tall in a long line of brilliant, gifted musical leadership. He sets tempos that are rock solid. He has a Szell-like or Klemperer-like feel for the eternally golden proportions of the harmony and narrative. He allows glow and warmth in all departments, reminding me of the Giulini era in particular. But - at the end we get audience applause, and to tell the truth I find that grating on repeat plays, even though the performance deserved the audience's response. Besides the applause explosion at the end, there is little enough audience noise to betray this being a live recording.

Playing the Cleveland disc right after, it turns out that there is very little improvement in the recent disc sound levels or sound qualities. That is the same as saying that the Cleveland disc still sounds very, very good. I could live with the more recent reading alright, but I think I prefer the older, first go-round under Dohnanyi in Cleveland. I think I hear just the slightest welcome touches of even more glowing woodwind tone, strings clear and velvety by turns, and brass playing at its Cleveland peak. Bonus item, no applause that will crash in, at the end.

Now turn to the fourth symphony. I still hear playing at high levels. Again, rock solid tempos. Again, a strong feel for the golden mean proportions, and the sheer, towering intellect of the composer's musical thinking. Especially by the time we get to the third and fourth symphonies, Brahms did not need to write an extraneous or redundant note, so intense and purposive was his technical and expressive lexicon. Again, the most favorable impression of the reading is its indebtedness to what the composer wrote, not to something flashy added in by a self-regarding conductor. If anything, Dohnanyi's second release of the fourth is just a close notch better than his new release of the second.

Comparisons in the fourth are many. A very fine Fritz Reiner recording with the RPO on Chesky adds to the challenge rosters. As does yet another special Stokowski reading, with the old master urging on the New Philharmonia. Again, the most immediate comparison will be with Dohnanyi's Cleveland disc of the fourth symphony. Sound? Very good, still, in Cleveland. Reading? Equally fine, with those typical Cleveland extra touches in woodwind, string, and brass tone. Again, the only marked negative I can discover is that noisy applause at the end which I know I will find unpleasant and grating on repeat plays. My choice in the fourth? Yet again, for Dohnanyi in Cleveland. (Though this new fourth comes closer to being a keeper, than the new Dohnanyi second.)

Now I realize I have a dilemma on my hands. I have this very good reading by Dohnanyi in London which I still prefer less than repeat spins of Dohnanyi in Cleveland. Yes, I admit that the London disc is quite new and the Cleveland disc is old by now (at least, in brash marketing department terms of release dates and commercial classical shelf life). What to do? I think I will be happy to give these London readings away, as proper gifts, positively intended. Not that I am giving away music which I can't stand or stomach; but that I am giving away readings I do value seriously, though not quite to the levels of my personal standing keeper shelves.

As I wrote to my sister once: Can we ever have too many Brahms performances? No, dear, probably not. (I was sending her my third gift set with a new conductor and band, of those same four Brahms symphonies.) Recommended, but slightly bettered by the older Cleveland set, and several others as noted, each different yet equally destined to be keepers."
An odd pairing of a sleep Brahms Second and brisk Fourth.
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 05/09/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)

"After leaving Cleveland, Dohnanyi's decade-long stint in London (1997-2008) passed all but unnoticed in the U.S. and only latterly have we been getting a few recordings. to judge by this calm, assured but eminently unexciting pairing of the Brahms Second and Fourth, Dohnanyi found the Philharmonia a comfortable berth. English critics have always been kind to him, hearing elegance and aristocratic poise where I hear an orchestra becalmed at sea. Here, the Sym. #2 is quite sleepy, not remotely a match for Simon Rattle's recent version with the Berliners on EMI. That account is all power and vibrancy; this one is a doze. I can't gainsay that Dohnanyi is thoroughly professional and echt Deutsch, but it's a good thing he has found some extra life in the past few years, to judge by some riveting concerts with the Boston Symphony.

Personally aloof and give (I am told by Clevelanders) to bouts of depression, Dohnanyi has rarely struck me as very engaged. In the finale of the Second, one of Brahms's most vivacious episodes in all his symphonies, the stolid tempo and poker-faced mood reminds me of a suaver Leinsdorf. The towering fourth demands passion and depth to really come across at full strength, the kind of commitment given by Furtwangler, Toscanini, ernstein, and at times, Karajan, each in their varied ways. As much as I expected an elevated run-through, Dohnanyi had made a good version in Cleveland, and here he is on his mettle. Signum's mediocre sound makes the orchestral sonority a bit of a lush blur, but the conductor begins urgently, and without finding quite enough emotional build up, the first movement is a success. The horns really sound out to begin the second movement, and the rest i never less than accomplished, but it descends into impersonal suavity, far from what this music should mean.

The Scherzo is vigorous, engaged, and the most successful movement so far, although Dohnanyi stands a bit apart from the music -- it's never jolly or rollicking. The finale begins in quick step a la Toscanini, the fast, steady tempo denying the passacaglia theme any tragic weight. But Dohnanyi has a right to see this movement as more triumphant than usual. With no lingering and little rubato, this isn't very expressive music-making, but the orchestra is admirably balanced. Overall, a civilized Brahms Fourth that sounds a bit too impatient to get out of the hall so as not to miss the last bus."