Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Symphonies - No 1 in C minor, Op. 68; No 2 in D, Op. 73; No 3 in F, Op. 90; No 4 in E minor Op. 98; Tragic Overture Op. 81

Philharmonia Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
Real Sound RS 953-0040 (mid-price) 4CDs [186.00]

These discs have only just become widely available - even though they were first released in 1999. Quite why they should now be given a broad selling base is beyond me for they are amongst the worst performances I have ever heard of these symphonies.

The problem is not just of interpretation. The recording is muddy in the extreme with balances between woodwind and strings very densely projected. If this were not worry enough the Philharmonia Orchestra, normally a responsive band of players under even the most testing conductors, are here a shadow of their formidable best. They play as if they are in a coma with phrasing lazily articulated and ensemble that falls apart at the seams, even at these languorous tempi.

The worst movements are invariably the slow ones - the andante of the First Symphony being a particularly bad example of Sanderling's peculiarly ill-judged self-indulgence. The C minor allegro tries to get off the ground but crashes mid term, despite a bit of a sprint at the opening. The Second Symphony is a real problem for Sanderling junior - the volatility of the allegretto con spirito so sublime in the hands of Toscanini, Furtwängler or Beecham here leaden and earthbound. The Third Symphony, a problem for many conductors, is here a near catastrophe, starting and stalling like an ancient juggernaut. We at least get the first movement repeat - ignored in the other symphonies - but at Sanderling's stolid pace it merely adds to the impression that these are laboriously played performances. In the Fourth the visceral impact of Brahms' writing is all but ignored - the codas to both the first and fourth movements being played as if under anaesthetic.

The sheer weight of these performances, or the perception of weight, attempts to reconstruct Brahms as played by Sanderling's father, Kurt, or by Otto Klemperer. Klemperer may have been weighty in the First Symphony (as he was in the others), but at least he furnished it with drama and intensity. Here, Sanderling gives us only half the story - weight, yes, but everything else is strangely missing. Sanderling may have perceptive ideas about the Brahms symphonies (his Third, whilst almost a disaster structurally, is at least more persuasively lyrical than most) but the Philharmonia are hostages to interpretations for which they seem to have little time.

On four discs, even at mid-price, and with only one coupling (an appallingly laboured Tragic Overture), this is a waste of money. Celibidache on EMI (also on four discs) offers expansive and perceptive performances - and we even get the German Requiem as a filler. Buy the EMI, and avoid Sanderling at all costs.

Marc Bridle

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