Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor [44:59]
Symphony No. 2 in D [45:48]
Symphony No. 3 in F [36:14]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor [39:17]
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman
rec. live, Tonhalle, Zurich, 14-15 April 2010
BMG RCA RED SEAL 88697 93349 2 [3 CDs: 166:00]
Brahms had a special connection with Zurich. He attended the opening of the Tonhalle, the city’s famous concert hall, in 1895 and was the only living composer to be featured on the ceiling painting; it’s reproduced in the booklet for this set, part of the altogether splendid packaging. The latter-day descendants of the orchestra for that opening concert have here given us a cycle of symphonies with which I am sure the composer would have been very pleased.
The first thing that strikes you is the beauty and colour of the playing. Both times I’ve heard them live, it’s the Tonhalle strings that have impressed me most, rich and rounded, oozing with character. This makes them ideal for Brahms. The mellow beauty of the Second’s first movement suits them perfectly, but they also develop a distinctive sheen, even a slight hard edge, for the more high energy moments, such as the opening movement of the First or the invigorating downward sweep that opens the Third. There is also some sensational wind playing and some first rate solos, such as the oboe in the First and the clarinet in the slow movements of the Third and Fourth. The playing alone would be worth the asking price, but it’s Zinman’s dynamic conducting that holds the set together. His reading of each symphony carries a clear sense of a transformational journey which, for me, went beyond the ordinary. The transition from darkness to light in the First is obvious, but Zinman breaks it down still further so that there is ebb and flow in each movement: in the first movement’s Allegro, for example, there is an almost tangible feeling of the drama and tension of the first subject being tamed by the gentler lyricism of the second. The Second carries a steady trajectory towards the celebration of the finale, but Zinman takes this movement just a touch slower than many so that the ebullience is contained within a certain set of rules. The Third also seems to go on a steady path from the exhilaration of the opening to an increasing sense of melancholy which is almost - but not quite - solved by the finale. Only in the first two movements of the Fourth was that sense of direction a little lacking. The tension and energy ups dramatically with the Scherzo and the final Passacaglia becomes so intense as to be almost unbearable.
It helps that these live recordings were all taped within two days, so we have here an unusually coherent reading of Brahms’ symphonic oeuvre. Sections of the press have damned this set with faint praise, calling it a safe middle-of-the-road Brahms cycle, but for me it’s much more than that: it’s an intelligent, well argued reading of this great cycle which stands comparison with any Brahms set that has come my way in recent years. Zinman is very much in the traditional mould of Brahms interpreters, eschewing the approaches of Harnoncourt or Gardiner, but he argues convincingly that there is still a place for this in our 21st century and he certainly carried me along with him. The sound, by the way, is excellent, rich and bloomy with plenty of clarity for the inner voices.
Incidentally, for those who are interested in such things, Zinman observes all the exposition repeats. Live as these recordings are, the audience is exceptionally well behaved and there is not a hint of a cough throughout. Applause, and there must have been much, is also absent. My only quibble is that the CDs give us barely any time to digest one movement before the next begins, surely an unnecessary compression of space when there is so much spare time on each disc.
Simon Thompson 
Traditional Brahms … excellent, rich and bloomy. 
excellent, rich and bloomy.