Review by akiralx July 18, 2005 (7 of 8 found this review helpful)
|I listened first to the Brahms Second Symphony, as it is one of my favourite works - but read on to see the real highlight of this SACD.
To be honest, I was looking forward to hearing a truly first class performance, stunningly recorded, by one of the world's greatest orchestras. If I say I don't think this is quite it, I hope I'm not disappointing too many people, because the performance is good, relatively orthodox and very well played. Nothing really stands out about Jansons' performance, it's just a fine interpretation that I will return to, but which in a competitive field lacks something to distinguish it from other readings I prefer that do have something special, for instance Furtwangler's tragic 1945 concert with the VPO, Walter's hyper-intense NYPO recording, and (in stereo) Karl Boehm's wonderfully long-breathed mid-1970s Vienna performance on DG - which also has a really exciting Finale to offset the grandeur.
Sonically this (the Brahms) is pretty good, although in no way remarkable, as one might expect it could be - bearing in mind it was set down in multi-channel in one of the world's great recording venues. The warmth and depth of the strings does not lead to heaviness, and all in all the playing is in the luxury class. The soundstage is only moderately wide, with very little use of the rear channels. Overall the effect is pleasing with clear wind solos, though the timpani lack a little vividness. In stereo the effect is very slightly flatter with marginally less detail. Bizarrely the rear channels only really seem to come to full life with the applause at the end of the work.
Things improve dramatically with the Beethoven Second however - this is very good. Soundwise too the slightly smaller orchestra is recorded with more clarity and air, and the sound is generally more vivid with a slightly wider soundstage. The timps are also more in focus and the wind (especially the bassoon) really come through superbly.
It seems to have become modern practice to play the first movement's allegro molto (after the slow introduction) at breakneck speed - not quite sure when that began (Karajan's 1961 version sounds almost sedate by comparison), but it only really works if the music can sparkle with elegant phrasing, as shown here by Jansons, by Wand on RCA, and (even better) by Harnoncourt in his COE set on Teldec - rather than tearing off at a torrential gabble, as Abbado does with the BPO (DG) where the main allegro flies past almost in a blur of sound.
Jansons also scores very highly in his wonderfully sensitive handing of the Larghetto. Here a sensible tempo, subtle string playing and characterful winds really hold the attention in music which, lacking the melodic or dramatic interest of, say, the Eroica's Funeral March, can actually end up sounding boring (Klemperer's EMI version of this and the Fourth's corresponding movement seem to go on for ever, sad to say).
The Scherzo and Finale are also excellently done, so interpretatively, Jansons brings real class to this work - in fact this is top-notch, among the best I've heard, alongside Wand's later live recording with the NDR SO. In fact the Finale here has a genuine sense of cumulative excitement which is really rather special, doubtless caused by the live conditions.
I really got this for the Brahms, which is at best a thoroughly decent performance, nothing more - but the highlight is the excellent Beethoven so at the price just regard the Brahms as a bonus. The ratings reflect the dichotomy of the two performances and their sonics, an average of 4 for sound seems fair - but the Beethoven warrants a 5 for performance.
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