Review by steviev November 18, 2013 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
|The worst way of listening to this set is to start with the Symphony 1 on disc one. Instead, skip directly to disc three, and there you'll hear the finest performance of the set, Symphony 3. It's great from beginning to end, a first movement that's immediately powerful and heroic with nothing held back, two deeply felt slow movements, and turbulent finale dissolving into ambiguous disquiet. If you're in the mood, leave the disc spinning to hear the second best performance in the set, Symphony 4, where Masur's worst sin is a metronomic first movement. All else is as it should be -- heart-easing slow movement, rowdy third, grim and granitic finale. You know how it goes. It's all there.
Now back to discs one and two. After the intro, the allegro proper of Symphony 1 starts off sluggish and slack and never really catches fire. The same is true for the entire first movement of Symphony 2, which as a whole is the worst movement in the set -- metronomic and boring first note to last. In both these symphonies I sense Masur holding back much of the time so that the climaxes hit with extra force, but I'm not convinced of his strategy -- my attention often drifts. Inner movements and finales are satisfying throughout.
As fill, we get the Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture. Neither is top-drawer Brahms and both are done as well as they deserve.
---------- THE SOUND ----------
The first thing you will not notice is any tape hiss. None. Go ahead and crank it way past a comfortable listening level: it isn't there, much different from Pentatone's quad reissue of the Berlioz Requiem, which immediately slaps you in the ears with that hideous relic of predigital hi-fi. These transfers are squeaky clean.
Soundstage is wide and exaggerated as if you're standing onstage, and yet the sound is plush and blended as if you're sitting about fifteen rows back. It's not realistic, but after awhile it's not distracting. It's reality-squared, I guess.
Woodwind solos are sometimes unrealistically forward in the mix, so I suspect some spotlighting. In fact, this makes for a very pleasing balance betwixt harmonie and strings that relieves Brahms's supposedably sludgy, string-heavy orchestration. The oboes and clarinets are more nasal, more honky than you hear these days, so much so that the oboes often sound like English horns. I like it.
When playing quietly or at medium volume, the orchestra sounds gorgeous, every section. But, as you know, Brahms does at times have the violins play loud and high, at which point your left eardrum will be scraped by the intense glare thrown off by the violins. Somehow the engineers tamed the glare in Symphony 4, but it's an ever-looming irritant in Symphonies 1, 2, and 3. This is a very good recording, four stars, circa 1976, and a hopelessly sub-competent recording circa 2013.
--------- I'M ALMOST DONE ---------
I learned the Brahms symphonies from George Szell's 1960s recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra. Szell really drives these works and keeps the tension high from first note to last in outer movements. Later I spent a lot of time listening to Mackerras' completely different HIP recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, where the main interest is a balance favoring winds over strings -- the interpretation is fairly laid back and otherwise not memorable. Masur's interpretation is more like Mackerras', but through the magic of spotlighting Masur gets to have a big fat string section AND prominent wind solos. Pity about those nasty violins and the soggy beginning to Symphonies 1 and 2.
--------- $$$$$$$$$$$$$ ---------
I got this set for $25, which works out to a Naxos-esque $8 per disc. If this set sold at full price, I'd tell you to run, run away! Considering its budget price, though, I'd say it's worth checking out -- I don't regret my purchase and have listened to this set with some pleasure, especially Symphonies 3 and 4.
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