Symphonies: Nos 1 and 2.
Overture. Variations on a Theme of Haydn
Valery Gergiev, cond; London SO
LSO LIVE 0733 (2 SACDs: 125:18)
Valery Gergiev is not a conductor whose name immediately comes to mind in connection with Brahms, though I do have him leading excellent performances of the Brahms and Korngold violin concertos with Nikolaj Znaider and the Vienna Philharmonic. Here, however, Gergiev gives us a very generous portion of Brahms’s orchestral works in a two-disc package that doesn’t stint on content. In recent reviews, I’ve spoken out against the practice of releasing recordings of the Brahms symphonies one per disc and with no filler. Such marketing is especially indefensible when it comes to Brahms, since he composed so few purely orchestral works, and those that he did compose, like the
overtures and the “Haydn” Variations, can each easily fit on a disc with any one of the four symphonies. Gergiev and LSO Live are therefore to be commended for doing exactly that.
All of these performances were recorded in concert at London’s Barbican between September and December 2012, and I have to say that I’m rather more impressed by Gergiev’s handling of these works than I expected to be, though I had no prior reason for skepticism. The metronomic juxtaposition between the First Symphony’s opening
Un poco sostenuto
is textbook perfection—an exact parsing of the beat, in which six eighth-notes per bar of one beat each become two groups of three eighth-notes each felt as two beats per bar. You could set the atomic clock by it, and it’s accomplished with absolutely no sense of a gearshift. The oboe solo in the opening introduction is also shaped and phrased with rare beauty, and the exposition repeat is observed. Gergiev sets tempos for all four movements that feel just right—neither too fast nor two slow—and the London Symphony Orchestra’s players make positively radiant sounds.
Unlike some other Brahms Firsts I’ve reviewed in recent issues—Weingartner’s comes to mind—Gergiev’s burns at a somewhat lower temperature; it smolders rather than blazes, which is to say, it focuses less on the dramatic upheavals and volcanic outbursts of the score than it does on its lyrical aspects and underlying sense of mystery. Take, for example, the violent clash of opposing rhythms that reaches its final life-or-death battle just before the denouement of the first movement. Others—the aforementioned Weingartner and Bruno Walter, for example—whip this passage into a frenetic frenzy. Gergiev’s reading of it is more moderate and measured.
To tell the truth, some may find Gergiev just a bit too measured for their taste, not so much in terms of tempo, but in terms of strict adherence to the beat. One doesn’t experience quite the feeling of forward drive and adrenaline rush that come with those conductors whose control is a bit more elastic and who are willing to submit to the music’s natural impulses. It was the utter naturalness of flow, among other things, that led me to praise Daniel Raiskin’s recent Brahms cycle with the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra (see 35: 5).
Still, one has to admire and appreciate Gergiev’s technical accomplishment, for this is an exceptionally intelligent and magnificently executed Brahms First. The
Overture, always a compatible companion to the First Symphony, fills out disc one. But the performance of the Overture wasn’t pieced together from the same concerts as the Symphony. The Symphony is a composite of widely spaced performances given on September 22nd and October 11th. The Overture is also a composite of widely spaced performances, but given on September 23rd and October 13th. While the Symphony sounds all of a piece, the Overture doesn’t. Not that there are any obvious splices or anything of that nature to be heard, but there seems to be a lack of continuity or consistency of vision to the reading. The tempo isn’t slow, yet it feels somehow sluggish and heavy, as if the orchestra is slow to respond to Gergiev’s direction. At 7:43, just before the onset of the fugal episode midway through the piece, Gergiev indulges in a highly exaggerated and elongated ritard, and then launches the fugue at a painfully slow tempo, which loses the dramatic thrust. This, I’d have to say, is the one cupcake in the batch that seems to have fallen a bit flat in the baking.
Any shortcomings in the
Overture are more than made up for in Gergiev’s reading of Brahms’s Second Symphony. This, quite simply, is one of the comeliest and most beguiling performances of the score I’ve heard. It flows with a warm, relaxed feeling, but doesn’t downplay the moments of heightened tension. Also to be noted is Gergiev’s absolutely ravishing handling of Brahms’s not altogether elegant first ending and lead-back to the repeat of the exposition in the first movement. I’ve always felt there was something a bit awkward and contrived sounding about this passage, as if it doesn’t quite fit, but Gergiev arrives back at the beginning with the silky smoothness of a hand slipping into a perfectly fitting glove. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this seam joined so skillfully.
When it comes to Brahms’s Second, it’s the opening of the second movement by which I ultimately judge any performance. In those swelling and subsiding cello phrases is concentrated all of Brahms’s love-longing and hope, which hasn’t yet turned to the heartache of loss and loneliness. Gergiev portrays a still relatively young Brahms filled with feelings of an idyllic future. A cloud passes overheard every now and then, and an ominous warning in the form of a chromatically dire harmonic progression in the closing measures, foretell of a different fate that lies ahead, but Gergiev’s interpretation of the movement, and the Londoners’ playing of it, is breathtakingly gorgeous.
For me, the two variations that put the stamp of approval or rejection on a performance of the “Haydn” Variations are Nos. 5 and 8, the
Andante con moto
Presto non troppo
. In the first instance, Brahms demonstrates his mastery of invertible counterpoint with a gorgeous minor-key variation that exchanges parts between the voices in the first and second halves. Gergiev draws from his London players a sinuous sound in which, enhanced by the LSO Live’s superb SACD recording, the lines seem to wrap around each other in an entwining, sensual embrace.
Variation No. 8 always puts me in mind of a chill wind whistling like a ghostly organ through the hallways of a haunted house. I’ve heard it played faster than Gergiev takes it—he’s mindful of Brahms’s
qualifier—but I don’t think I’ve heard it sound any creepier than in Gergiev’s
In three out of these four performances, Valery Gergiev strides on stage, throws down the gauntlet, and accomplishes a coup, declaring himself a major new Brahms interpreter to be contended with. That’s quite an achievement, considering that up until now Brahms has not been a staple in Gergiev’s repertoire. I anxiously await the companion set containing the Third and Fourth symphonies. Besides the
Overture, it will be interesting to see what Gergiev chooses as additional filler. I don’t think either of the serenades will fit, so my guess is, he’ll give us the composer-orchestrated
. Meanwhile, this is very strongly recommended.