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Semyon Bychkov and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, of which Bychkov has been Music Director since 1997, have proven to be one of today's greatest success stories on CD. This, their fifth release for Avie, contains the complete symphonies by Brahms, released for the first time in Hybrid SACD format.
“I have only three words to describe this collection. Quality. Quality. Quality.” – Classic FM’s Simon Bates
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Brahms - Complete Symphonies
“Any fears that Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Brahms will be quirky, provocative or abrasive can be dispelled. There are interpretative novelties (freshly considered articulation and clarified counterpoint) and the Berlin strings project a smooth, curvaceous profile. Harnoncourt makes a beeline for the brass, and the horns in particular. The live recordings have remarkable presence and are mostly cough-free.
The First Symphony's opening Un poco sostenuto seems a trifle soft-grained but the pounding basses from bar 25 are beautifully caught and the first-movement Allegro is both powerful and broadly paced. The Andante sostenuto slow movement is both limpid and conversational, with trance-like dialogue between oboe and clarinet and sparing use of vibrato among the strings.
Harnoncourt makes real chamber music of the third movement, though he drives the trio section to a fierce climax, and the finale's first accelerating pizzicatos are truly stringendo poco apoco – the excitement certainly mounts, but only gradually.
The Second Symphony's first movement is relatively restrained. Harnoncourt's strategy is to deliver a sombre exposition and a toughened development. Again, the slow movement is fluid and intimate, with some tender string playing. The third movement's rustling trio is disarmingly delicate and the finale, tightly held, keenly inflected and heavily accented: the coda threatens to break free and the effect is thrilling.
First impressions of the Third suggest a marginal drop in intensity, yet the first movement's peroration is so powerful that there's a retrospective suspicion that all the foregoing was mere preparation. The middle movements work well but the rough-hewn, flexibly phrased finale really makes the performance.
Like the Third, the Fourth opens with less import than some of its older rivals, yet the development intensifies perceptibly, the recapitulation's hushed piano dolce opening bars are held on the edge of a breath and the coda is recklessly headstrong. The slow movement has some heartfelt moments, the top-gear Scherzo is quite exhilarating and the finale, forged with the noble inevitability of a Baroque passacaglia.
Ultimately, Harnoncourt delivers a fine and tragic Fourth.
Harnoncourt's Brahms is the perfect antidote to predictability and interpretative complacency.” Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010
“Under Harnoncourt the music's gently descending lines truly glow [in the Third], distinctively but never conspicuously, and the gradual 'dying away' is beautifully handled” Gramophone Magazine, Awards Issue 2012
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Brahms: Complete Symphonies
“The concerts recorded here preserve the two legendary occasions in the autumn of 1952 when in a Brahms cycle at the Royal Festival Hall Toscanini conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra, then only six years old but already the front runner among London orchestras. The recording itself, now legendary, has generated pirated versions, but never before has the original made by EMI, under the supervision of Walter Legge, been officially released. Testament's remastering is a revelation. This new set brings the clearest of demonstrations that the RCA recordings of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra made during the last years of his life (including his Brahms cycle of the very same 12-month period) give only an imperfect picture of a conductor who at the time, and for a generation or so previously, was almost universally counted the greatest in the world. That reputation has been eroded over the years, but this issue may help to put the record straight.
Take for example the quite different NBC version of No 3 that he recorded in New York barely a month after this performance: as Alan Sanders says in his note, a 'rhythmically staid recording which entirely lacked the lyricism and eloquence of the Philharmonia performance'.
His description points to the marked contrasts, not only in No 3 but in all four symphonies.
Whereas the New York performances, resonant and superbly drilled, have a hardness and rigidity, with the dynamic contrasts ironed out, thus eliminating pianissimos (partly a question of recording balance), the Philharmonia's consistently bring a moulding of phrase and subtlety of rubato which bears out the regular Toscanini instructions to 'Sing!'. And in contrast with most Toscanini recordings, the hushed playing is magical. The New York players, by comparison, seem to have forgotten how to respond to the finer subtleties of this notorious taskmaster among conductors. The extra flexibility of the Philharmonia performances over the NBC has an interesting effect on tempo too. Whereas in No 1 the NBC speeds of 1951 are faster, not just than those of the Philharmonia but of the 1941 NBC performance, in the other three symphonies the Philharmonia timings tend to be a degree quicker, notably in No 3, where for example the Andante flows far better.
Walter Legge fought hard to get these live recordings officially released – now we can understand why.” Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010
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