Michael Gielen

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Tragic Overture

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Although he has recorded Johannes Brahms' A German Requiem multiple times and, at one time or another, partnered a soloist in several of Brahms' concerti, eminent German conductor Michael Gielen seems never to have recorded any of Brahms' symphonies, save a lone Intercord entry featuring Gielen in the Symphony No. 4 recorded back in the '80s. Hänssler Classics' disc Brahms: Symphony No. 1/Tragic Overture appears to be the first installment in a cycle of the Brahms symphonies under Gielen's baton, and we can finally get an idea of what this most "arch" of arch-Germanic music-making would have to say in this august Romantic literature. In the liner notes of the disc, composer Arnold Schoenberg is quoted in saying that among the things he learned from Brahms' music was the quality of "economy -- and yet richness." Switch that phrase around, and that makes for a good summary of what to expect in Gielen's Hänssler Classics' Brahms "first" -- richness, and yet economy.

The opening Tragic Overture is a great, edge-of-your-seat performance where Gielen seizes the dramatic angle in Brahms' music and never lets go. Even though Gielen isn't being fussy about pacing, preferring to drive the bus rather than ride as another passenger, minute orchestral detail comes to the fore in this performance that one will swear they've never heard in Brahms' Tragic Overture before. Brahms' Symphony No. 1 is graced with a similar design on Gielen's part -- the Andante sostenuto movement is a "true" andante, meaning that it is not very slow. Gielen doesn't even drop the tempo much to accommodate the big tune in the last movement, but this does not deprive the work of its sense of gravity. Nonetheless, there is an element here tending to levitate Gielen's conception; the SWR recorded the symphony on a different date from the "Tragic" and on this occasion, they didn't mike the string section quite as well. The low strings are too buried in the mix and are hard to hear. By virtue of whatever means of economy led to the SWR deciding to deliver less of the string section, Gielen's performance is robbed of its "richness" in similar measure, and that's a pity.

Nonetheless, if you would like a super performance of Brahms' Tragic Overture and don't mind getting an inspired, yet somewhat sonically compromised performance of the First Symphony along with it, then Brahms: Symphony No. 1/Tragic Overture is an excellent option.

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