Johannes Brahms - Symphony No. 1

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For a composer who was very self-critical and constantly aware of Beethoven's ever present shadow casting doubts on his own abilities, Johannes Brahms certainly made an impressive entrance with the opening statement of his Symphony No. 1. Very few symphonies that I know of open with such a bold and dramatic gesture. An ascending chromatic scale on the strings pitted against a descending chromatic scale on the horns, all underpinned by a foreboding and relentless drum beat driving everything forward with purpose and determination. After three failed attempts at symphonies and 14 years of work, the composer's patience and diligent work finally paid off. This is truly a great symphony in every sense of the word. It follows the well-established four-movement symphonic structure, but with stronger motivic references between the movements, and a Scherzo that is more in line with the overall concept of the complete work. It could be considered one of the first symphonies to shed its academic skin.

This new recording from October 2009 is just simply wonderful. Over the last five years, and more so recently, it seems that many musicians and conductors have been taking a bite at the Brahms apple. Piano works, concertos, vocal recitals, etc. have all seen a flurry of recordings lately, but symphonies in particular have seen an upsurge in new recordings. Alsop, Rattle, Gardiner, and Janowski are some of the excellent conductors who have recently recorded this Brahms symphony, and all of them with fine results. Unfortunately, they have all failed to see what Iván Fischer has seen within this monumental work. A deeply rooted and pervasive lyricism permeating every note. Take for example the intro of the first movement. Never have I heard, from conductors past or present, such a beautiful 'singing' tone and passion coming from the strings. There are many revealing moments throughout this recording, and two in particular that deserve special mention. At the 3:00 minute mark of the final movement the alpenhorn melody interacting with a beautiful flute melody, followed by Wagnerian brass choirs, will just simply take your breath away. And, of course, at the 5:15 mark, Brahms introduces that wonderful melody with which he pays his respects to Beethoven, and in this performance, that melody is infused with a nobility and fervor never heard before.

The Variations on a theme by Haydn benefit from the same textural transparency as does the symphony, but with an added 'classical' poise and a refreshing lightness creating a perfect contrast and counter balance to the more muscular and forward looking symphony.

Channel Classics have once again, as in Fischer's Mahler recordings, produced a state of the art recording capturing every possible nuance from the Budapest Festival Orchestra players. If my information is correct, there are no plans for a complete Mahler cycle from these forces, but hopefully they will provide us with all four of the Brahms symphonies, and shed a new perspective on these often played, but rarely felt, masterpieces.

Jean-Yves Duperron