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Johannes BRAHMS
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68
Overture Hamlet Op. 4

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
SIMAX PSC 1206 [60.43]
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This is the final instalment in Jansons' Brahms symphony cycle, recorded live over the last three years by Simax at the Oslo Concert Hall. I have watched with increasing interest an unfolding set of reviews for the previous releases which could hardly be more contrasted. The authors of The Penguin Guide (Yearbook 2000/1), for example, describe the coupling of symphonies 2 & 3 (PSC 1204) as 'among the finest versions of both symphonies … outstanding'. Bernard Jacobson in the March/April 2000 issue of the American journal Fanfare says of the same disc 'This … release raises troubling questions about what it is that constitutes musical talent … Jansons sounds merely somnolent and unconcerned … the man's reputation is such that I think readers deserve to be warned.' Clearly something unusual is happening here, so, as someone who had yet to hear any of these recordings, I asked our Editor, when this new CD of Brahms First Symphony was released, to be allowed to review it.

First impressions are not entirely positive. The diffused quality lacks the necessary open-air quality which Brahms' fulsome sound world always benefits from. The timpani fail to 'speak' as they should and the winds are somewhat backward. As to the performance of the first movement, it is clear that Jansons is fully in control of his orchestral forces and when climaxes approach he whips up excitement with a sure hand. There remains a nagging feeling, however, that the extended musical argument employed by Brahms, deploying carefully constructed, if lengthy, passages of great beauty if not dramatic effect, does not truly touch a fundamental musical nerve in the conductor. At 12.30, for example, the climax is as good as you might wish to hear, but immediately after, at 12.36, the pizzicato passage is disappointingly straight-laced, with the rubato required almost entirely absent. One searches for greater plasticity and manipulation from Jansons. Perhaps the very circumstance of giving a live performance in the not easy acoustic of the Oslo Concert Hall tells against a successful Brahms recording. Time after time orchestral attacks appear to be marginally behind the beat, a situation which conspires to defeat any feeling of forward momentum and inevitably has the damaging effect of disconcerting the listener who deserves to be taken on a movement-long musical journey. One result, at 8.22, is a transitional passage that goes nowhere. More's the pity, then, that Jansons does not observe the all-important exposition repeat which might have created a better opportunity for building the argument.

The sensual second movement starts with a beautiful solo from the oboist (albeit within a rather straightened pulse) but the famous passage (here at 2.09) where the strings climb up to cascade gloriously downward sounds rather like a cold shower. Jansons metrical beat allows the clarinet little room for manoeuvre and, whilst small errors are only to be expected in live performances, the late entry of the solo violin should have been re-taken in a patch session. The end of the movement is something of a damp squib too, with the final violin solo commencing with a very flat note.

Doubtless the grazioso allegretto of the third movement worked its normal magic with the Oslo audience. The basic tempo is acceptably slow and there are many felicitous touches in the playing of this fine orchestra. But again there is a feeling of lack of engagement from Jansons and, in this movement, in particular, the cool recording does not help.

Matters improve in the last movement as one might expect from a conductor so admired in the music of the more overtly dramatic composers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The rhapsodic nature of this music also tends to confirm that Jansons is most at his ease here - the more excitable the music becomes the more Jansons convinces. The pizzicato accelerando near the opening of the movement is suitably animated and the principal horn plays out strongly.

But it is all rather too late. The barrage of coughing that punctuates the entry of the famous string theme (again, surely a candidate for a re-take) rather spoils the effect and when, nearer the close of the movement, the theme returns, Jansons finds neither nobility nor sentimentality, one of which, according to one's taste, should be present.

A great pity then than the much better recorded and played overture by Joachim finds itself somewhat stranded. Both Brahms and Schumann admired Joachim's compositional abilities and, although Hamlet cannot be classified as a forgotten masterpiece, it's well worth an occasional hearing.

Simon Foster

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