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 Recording of the Week  Brahms Symphonies from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Just a few weeks ago I wrote about Andris Nelsons’s new Bruckner recording with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, one of the two orchestras of which he is Music Director. Well, he’s been rather busy with his other orchestra too, and I’m extremely delighted to be able to recommend thoroughly a new set of Brahms’s complete symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, all recorded live in Boston Symphony Hall last November.

Andris Nelsons
Andris Nelsons

It’s hard to know where to start, really, as the whole set is so outstanding: full of drive and such tremendous energy. This is largely down to the way that Nelsons sculpts each piece: time and again he achieves the seemingly contradictory feat of allowing every phrase the space it needs to breathe whilst simultaneously pushing the music ever onwards to its conclusion. A shining example of this is the very first note of the Fourth Symphony: it’s a relatively tricky opening because the crotchet up-beat in the violins literally comes out of nowhere, and so it’s hard to shape without making it too rigid or metronomic, but by ever so slightly elongating this crotchet and fractionally delaying the next bar, Nelsons instantly gives the whole phrase life and direction. There’s not a single bar that feels heavy or stodgy, and yet amongst the lightness there is real weight when required, not least in the string sound, which is full of warmth (particularly in the “big tune” in the last movement of the First Symphony), and the woodwind section are refined throughout, including some highly poised oboe solos.

Aside from that, what impressed me most was the absolute clarity achieved, with every facet of Brahms’s orchestration there to be heard. Whether it be the brief but telling contributions of the contrabassoon in the outer movements of the Third Symphony, or the even sparser use of the tuba in the Second Symphony (the only one of the four to employ the instrument), I could feel the impact of these instruments every time they played, without any of the other orchestral details being obscured.

In fact, all the brass are magnificent. Whilst at no stage do they ever tip over into “annoyingly loud” territory, powerful trombones and trumpets heftily cut through textures: witness the descending scales for each trombone in turn towards the end of the Second Symphony, or the very last few bars of the First Symphony, where the bass trombone’s final arpeggio ascent is most satisfyingly prominent.

Similarly, the horns bring a pleasing bite to their contributions (especially in the first movement of the Fourth), and yet they demonstrate sensitivity where necessary: there’s a radiant horn solo in the last movement of the First Symphony, and I must make special mention of the chorale for trombones, horns, and bassoons in the last movement of the Fourth, which is stunningly exquisite.

I was just about to apologise for perhaps being over-enthusiastic in my praise, but actually I’m not sorry at all: of course there are already many fine sets of these symphonies, but this one is quite exceptional, and surely one of the finest to have come along in recent years. We’ve listened to these performances countless times in the Presto office in recent weeks, and have yet to tire of them one bit. If anything, their magic and distinction only increases with each hearing: truly remarkable!

Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (Complete)

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons

Available Format: CD