Brahms Symphony No. 1

As with his Mahler series in 2008, there was some scepticism as ‘Gergiev’s Brahms’ was anticipated last season. Once again, Gergiev was daring to conduct the classic German repertoire which artists with a predominantly Russian musical CV are supposed to avoid. After all, conductors are meant to spend a decade or two conducting German orchestras and earning their campaign medals in this music. Aren’t they?

Sceptics may have overlooked the fact that, for a conductor who has spent years in the opera pit, the endless melodic interplay in Brahms is hardly a problem. That said, the sturdy thematic structures and unapologetic romanticism of Brahms make it oddly difficult music. The Symphony No 1, twenty years in gestation and almost knowingly monumental, was Brahms’s attempt to conquer his fear as a symphonist. He put a lot into it. The orchestral canvas is a large one. But Gergiev rises to the challenge.

The symphony is characterised by two meaty, dramatic outer movements flanking two lighter ones. The second ‘Andante’ movement profits from some beautifully sustained string playing and several intense solos from lead violinist Roman Simovic. The third is lithe and expressive, with a wide and beautifully controlled dynamic range: Gergiev honours the ‘grazioso’ marking but injects moments of drama too, and the performance breathes wonderfully, the strings treading lightly beneath a complex interplay of melodic lines. The final movement recaptures the slow drama of the opening but moves into an ‘Allegro non troppo’, punctuated by the now iconic moments for brass. Horn player Timothy Jones takes centre stage for the climactic solos.

This is a confident, warm reading from the LSO, as well as an intensely melodic one. The wind playing is ravishing and the direction is intense.

The Tragic overture took Brahms rather less time than the Symphony. It was composed in 1880 four years after the symphony’s first performance. The title ‘Tragic’ is intended to convey the turbulent character of the piece. That Gergiev and the LSO are very good at turbulent is clear from this performance. If you like full-blooded Brahms, you may want to investigate the rest of the series.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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