Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrucken Kaiserslautern. OEHMS Classics OC 408.

When I saw Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's name as conductor on this disc, I thought it might be a historical recording, perhaps one from the man's heyday with the Minnesota Symphony back in the Sixties and Seventies. I hadn't thought about him in years and figured he must have retired by now (if not passed away). Then I looked at the recording date: February, 2011. Yes, Maestro Skrowaczewski is very much alive and kicking and probably already planning to celebrate his ninetieth birthday with some new releases next year. It's good to have a musician of the old school still with us, and it's good to hear him conducting a traditional Romantic classic like the Brahms First. At least, we can expect a thoroughly informed interpretation from him.

Here's the thing with Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and his Symphony No. 1. He probably felt intimidated by Beethoven; after Beethoven's death, composers were reluctant to continue in the symphonic field where Beethoven left off. Many of them felt that Beethoven had already said it all, and they were content to deal with concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and the like. Brahms spent in excess of a dozen years, from 1862-1876, deliberating over various ideas for his First Symphony, finally premiering it in 1876. The public and critics hailed it a success, and it has more or less remained in the basic repertoire ever since.

Here's another thing I have to confess: Of Brahms's four symphonies, I have never really cared for the First as much as the other three. While I recognize the symphony is something of a musical precedent, that does not in my book necessarily make it a great piece of music. I have always found the opening movement too busy, too messy; the Andante too overtly, lushly Romantic; and the third movement too humdrum. For me it is only the finale that is at all interesting, where Brahms saves up his big theme. Nevertheless, I'm always willing to listen to a good performance of the work, and there have been plenty of them over the years.

Contrary to what some conductors do, who begin slowly and build incrementally, Skrowaczewski gets the first movement off to a properly grand, almost majestic start, and then he slows the pace considerably and stays there for the duration. You certainly can't accuse him of hurrying the music because he caresses it with strength and care. His primary goal appears to be in clarifying every note and every phrase as though he's afraid we might miss something. At times, this means his approach may appear lethargic; but so be it. Oddly, though, I seem to recall his rendition of the same symphony with the Halle Orchestra some years ago being quite a bit more intense, but, unfortunately, I didn't have it any longer for comparison.

In any case, Skrowaczewski's new rendering is a bit different from most, and it doesn't really touch other, more-vigorous, more-exalted performances from people like Szell (Sony), Boult (EMI), Abbado (DG), Walter (Sony), Wand (RCA), Haitink (Philips), Mackerras (Telarc), and especially Klemperer (EMI). This new one, in fact, may appear too old-fashioned to appeal to everyone.

Understandably, the two inner movements benefit the most from Skrowaczewski's leisurely style, the second-movement Andante sostenuto particularly lovely and lyrical. The third movement, usually reserved for a quick-moving Scherzo, Brahms replaces with a gentle Allegretto, a kind of shepherd's hymn, and the conductor handles it without incident, providing a solid, perhaps even authoritative-sounding rendition.

Yet it's the finale we all wait for in the First, the high point of the symphony, the crowning glory with its instantly recognizable main theme bursting forth radiantly no matter who's conducting. Here, again, however, Skrowaczewski tends to be so cautious, or so excessively fastidious, taking the lead-up so slowly we have to wonder if the principal melody is ever going to appear. When it does, there is no denying its brilliance. Nevertheless, it tends to sound a tad mechanical compared to the way some of the aforementioned conductors handle it. So the work ends not quite on the high note it should but on sort of a hesitant stutter.

In short, if you're looking for ultimate electricity, vitality, or excitement in this symphony, you're probably not going to find it with Skrowaczewski. Instead, you'll find a dignified, carefully crafted reading of a noble rather than high-spiritual quality.

OEHMS Classics recorded the music at the Kongresshalle, Saarbr├╝cken, in, as I've said, February of 2011. The engineers obtain clean, transparent sonics, although with a slight forward edge to the upper midrange. Bass, treble, and dynamics are fine, if not terribly extraordinary, while stage depth and stereo spread sound quite impressive. It's a good, modern recording without quite rising to the highest of audiophile standards.


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