Herbert Blomstedt’s Brahms

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BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1.* Tragic Overture / Gewandhausorchester; Herbert Blomstedt, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186850 (live: Leipzig, *September & October 2019)

I chose to review this release not just because I like the Brahms First but because I’ve always liked Herbert Blomstedt…and, in part, to get the horrible recording by Philippe Jordan out of my mind.

Blomstedt, like so many conductors of the past, has gotten slower in his musical approach as he has gotten older. No longer is he the firebrand of his early Schubert Symphony cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden is my favorite set (except, of course, for No. 7, which he has never recorded or for No. 8, which he recorded incomplete). But since I had never listened to his Brahms previously, perhaps he, like so many Germans, tend to take the ultra-Romantic view of this composer: even Carlos Kleiber, normally a very zippy conductor, tended to play Brahms a bit on the slow side. But this performance does not lack drama when it is called for, except in the very opening of the symphony, and it is a beautifully-conceived and –phrased performance. In fact, in many respects it reminds me of the old recording that Guido Cantelli made with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1952, the first recording of this work that I ever bought (and quite pricey it was, too…$50 on the original HMV LP, and this was back in the early 1970s when a dollar was worth more than it is now). Indeed, the loving way that Blomstedt caresses the line in the second movement is quite unique in my experience.

As the symphony goes on, however, Blomstedt departs greatly from the kind of phrasing that Cantelli gave to the symphony. He indulges in a great many slowed-down passages which seem to be taken that way out of caprice and not out of musicality. It’s not as bad as the Jordan performance, but it’s very strange—even stranger than the way Hans Knappertsbusch, a conductor noted for his slowness of tempo, conducted Brahms.

And unfortunately, Blomstedt makes similar poor tempo choices in the Tragic Overture, so softening its musical message that it comes across more like the Comfort Overture with a Little Bit of Tragedy for Color.

Pentatone Classics has made it clear that this is the first installment of what is to be a complete Brahms Symphony cycle. While I don’t feel that it will provide much competition to the complete sets of Weingartner, Toscanini (with the Philharmonia except for No. 2) and Michael Gielen, it may well indeed satisfy those who like their Brahms very Romantic. If that is your taste, this recording is well recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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