Top Ear

Bromide Brahms by Sawallisch/LPO

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A bored Jeremy Lee writes

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s first Brahms cycle was with the Vienna Symphony on Philips, which has garnered mainly negative reviews.  I’ve yet to hear it, but if this second cycle with the London Philharmonic represents an improvement, I have yet to imagine how awful the first one would be.  This second cycle is the least interesting Brahms symphony cycle I’ve ever heard so far.

Not that there’s anything terribly wrong about it.  The playing of the London Philharmonic is safe and solid, not without minor errors, but surely not what you would call “bad playing” (unlike the VSO cycle, purportedly)—the LPO surely benefited from Tennstedt’s tenure.  The sound is good, too, and the 3-CD price is unbeatable, making this possibly the least expensive Brahms cycle on the market today.

But then, there’s nothing in the playing, or the conducting, that holds interest either.  Where’s the mystery in the outer movements of the first symphony, the soaring beauty of the second theme of the second symphony’s first movement, the excitement of the finale, the angst in the fourth’s first movement closing pages, or the inexorable drive in the Passacaglia?  In place, we have wave after wave of anesthetic tedium.  The Academic Festival Overture fares best, which is crisp and mostly exciting, on a par with Solti maybe, but there isn’t enough tension in the opening pages (as with, well, most of the tense moments in the symphonies!).  As for Sawallisch, he doesn’t seem to have any interpretation, and he’s just on autopilot most of the time, so by letting things run by themselves, he’s disastrously soporific.   Pity the London Philharmonic, because in the right hands (cue Tennstedt and Solti), it can be a very remarkable ensemble.

As Brahms symphony cycles go, I’ve heard Mackerras, Böhm, Karajan, Solti and Zinman, all of which I can identify a distinct character—they don’t necessarily have an authentic Brahms character as it were, but at least all of them have a certain type of quality, no matter in interpretation or sound, that makes them distinct from the rest.  So the most disappointing part of Sawallisch’s Brahms is that it is so monochrome and lacking in character.  It sounds completely anonymous.

But of course, the anonymity of it all might exactly be that distinct character that identifies it from the rest.  What do I know?


  • Album name:  Brahms:  Symphonies 1-4;  Variations on a Theme by Haydn;  Tragic Overture;  Academic Festival Overture;  Schicksalslied
  • Performers:  Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor);  London Philharmonic Orchestra;  The Ambrosian Singers [Schicksalslied]
  • Label:  EMI 50999 5 00913 2 4
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  3:42:53

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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