Brahms: Symphony No. 1 - Janowski
PentaTone Classics PTC 5186307
Classical - Orchestral
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68, Variations on a Theme of Haydn Op. 56
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)
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Review by John Broggio - October 3, 2007
Stunning sound, less than stunning conducting.
As others have noted, Janowski is fairly swift in this symphony (a total of 44'27 cf 50'11 for Bychkov on Brahms: 4 Symphonies - Bychkov) but far from being alone in this speed (an example, by no means unique, is Abbado's Berlin cycle where the first clocks in at 45'27). However, this is not the whole story.
The extra minute that Abbado uses is not uniformly applied: Abbado is 1 minute quicker in the first movement even though his introduction is broader. By contrast, Janowski is 1 minute quicker in the following Andante sostenuto and 30 seconds quicker than the Un poco allegretto e grazioso of Abbado. The tempi are broadly similar in the finale. What does this show? Well, for a start that Abbado is far more alive to emphasising the expressive contrasts than Janowski appears to be from this reading. In many ways, this is Brahms performed like Beethoven (not perhaps completely inappropriate depending on your mood) but bearing in mind Brahms' profession that he "couldn't make enough slowings and accelerations" then many might well consider a strict HIP Beethovenian approach to be a little too extreme and to my ears Janowski appears to be in a musical straight-jacket when compared to the likes of previous BPO directors. This is far from the rather brusque and mannered conducting of Bychkov but still leaves a lot to be desired.
The playing of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is good if not in the very top flight (a slight lack of richness in tone when one compares them to the great philharmonics). As an instance, the very opening with normally towering bass and timpani sounds as though the PSO want to issue billowing sound but the very strict speed prevents this from blossoming. The (incorrectly named) "Haydn" variations, are a different matter and the style is more typically Brahmsian and far more enjoyable but it is not really sufficient to save the disc, musically speaking, as a whole. I found no mannerisms that irritated me present in the conducting in this work although, other commentators that I respect have - buyer beware...
The engineering though is unquestionably top-flight, and no matter how often one can declare that so-and-such recording is the best sounding yet, another comes round the corner to take the crown. This disc is one of these recordings and for pure sonic pleasure it is hard to beat.
Could I whole-heartedly recommend this disc? Not unless the potential purchaser is seeking a demonstration disc of acoustic music reproduction or they are a fan of either the orchestra or conductor or they desperately want the "Haydn" variations on SACD.
Copyright © 2007 John Broggio and HRAudio.net
Review by Mark Novak - October 19, 2007
I concur with the earlier reviews about the performance of the Sym 1. It is a middle-of-the-road interpretation that never gets my blood flowing except perhaps for the final bars of the last mvmt. One of the problems is that the Pittsburgh Sym sounds decidedly pedestrian in this performance. Usually I am a fan of live recordings because they often bring an excitement that is missing from studio jobs. But in this case, the orchestra sounds bored and imprecise - very second rank. There was one place where the performance impressed me and that was in the pizzicato strings in the third mvmt - this was very nicely done by both orchestra and conductor with the changes in tempo precisely executed by the strings. That's about all the praise I can muster for this one performance-wise (it alone raises my performance rating by a half-star). Full disclosure - I haven't even listened to the Haydn variations and it may be a while before I get to it. In any case, it would not sway my general opinion of this release.
Unlike the other reviewers however I am also disappointed in the sound. I find the upper bass/lower mids to be congested and muddy sounding compared to the best orchestral recordings (including many previous Pentatone releases). There is also a lack of high end extension. The sound is dull - just like the performance. An unusual dud from the fine Pentatone label.
Copyright © 2007 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net