An Alternative Approach to Brahms: Michael Gielen Offers Intelligent, Highly Musical Recordings of the Brahms Symphonies and Concertos (REPLAY: Rob Cowan's Monthly Survey of Historic Reissues and Archive Recordings)

By Cowan, Rob | Gramophone, February 2017 | Go to article overview

An Alternative Approach to Brahms: Michael Gielen Offers Intelligent, Highly Musical Recordings of the Brahms Symphonies and Concertos (REPLAY: Rob Cowan's Monthly Survey of Historic Reissues and Archive Recordings)


Cowan, Rob, Gramophone


No one with well-functioning ears could accuse Michael Gielen of being besotted with tonal glamour so don't expect his Brahms--the focal point of SWR Music's 'Michael Gielen Edition, Vol 3'--to deliver the heft, sweetness or regal polish of, say, Karajan or even Rattle. Except maybe in the Fourth Symphony where textures are uncommonly rich, the bass-line full and lustrous, and the playing of the second movement's glorious second subject as warmly expressive as you could wish for, especially second time around when the lower strings take the lead.

This is highly intelligent conducting, the brass ringing resplendent in the same symphony's first movement, with arguments kept taut and on the move, the Scherzo lively but not too fast, the finale opening quite softly (a very legato approach to the passacaglia theme) but reaching an impressive full height as the movement progresses. Once through, you feel you've really been places. Gielen's policy with first-movement exposition repeats is interesting. Possibly the least popular is the one for the First Symphony. That one Gielen takes, the important repeat for the Third too, but strangely not for the Second which is the one instance where Brahms returns us to his initial arguments on the wings of a beautiful linking passage that is otherwise lost to us.

The Second has always divided opinion as to its specific climate: is this music autumnal, or is it spring-like? The former stance is incomparably expressed on a 1951 live New York Philharmonic broadcast under Bruno Walter (recently reissued on Pristine Audio, PASC485), a performance of such inner warmth that once heard it bonds permanently to your memory bank. Gielen takes a lighter, gentler, more transparent view of the music, right from the symphony's opening phrases where horns and woodwinds launch a balmy exchange, leading to the main body of the Allegro non troppo, with its pert woodwind interjections and swiftly flowing 'lullaby' second subject. The movement's exposition is keenly though flexibly driven, whereas the development presses onwards a ratchet or two. The Adagio is very much non troppo: note how Gielen observes the poco espressivo direction, such carefully observed dynamics, too, the mood kept decidedly pastoral. By comparison Walter in 1951 is broader, darker, more heavily etched in terms of texture and more sweetly expressive. Gielen's Allegretto grazioso third movement serves as a breezy intermezzo, the finale, a source of emotional release, bracing though unforced and with judiciously modulated tempos and a mode of orchestral attack that never slips into aggressive overkill.

The Second Symphony's fill-up is a skillfully balanced account of the Haydn Variations. Gielen and his SWR orchestra open the set with purposeful account of the Tragic Overture, dramatic but never overstated.

The First Symphony, like the Second, launches without either rhetorical exaggeration or the least sense of melodrama. A first movement timing of 15'16" initially hoodwinked me into suspecting that the repeat is omitted but as I've already said, it isn't. Gielen sticks to a highly mobile tempo. Likewise, the Andante sostenuto has a flowing, song-like quality about it, with effective dovetailing between woodwind soloists and with well-gauged climaxes. The Allegretto is swift, the finale usefully goal-orientated: the symphony's close is especially impressive.

Gielen's way with the Third is for the most part sunny and lyrical, the first movement Allegro properly con brio, the middle movements similarly paced but well defined in terms of mood while the finale is animated and vividly accented.

Schoenberg's orchestration of the First Piano Quartet has often been dubbed, partially in jest I would imagine, as 'Brahms's Fifth' though if you're in the least serious about the symphonic reference, Brahms's 'proper' First would be a more accurate description, the Quartet's composition dating from 1856-51, the Symphony from 1855-76. …

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