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The Critic's Chair series ended in March 2015.

The Critic's Chair for 15 December 2013

Dianne James looks at a recent release of the complete Brahms Symphonies, performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly. Dianne was recently in Leipzig, and went to two concerts of Chailly conducting the Gewandhaus in performances of these Brahms symphonies. She shares her highlights from those concerts, gives an insightful review of the recording, and tells us why she's hoping to find this box-set in her Christmas stocking.

BRAHMS: The Symphonies
Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
(Decca 478 5344)

WVcDGcbOL SLChailly’s new set of Brahms is a fine achievement, and a superb sequel to his Beethoven recording of 2011. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is once again in top form, and there’s some exceedingly good playing from a purely technical viewpoint on this new recording. Musically it’s also very satisfying. All four symphonies are given readings that capture the dramatic and ebullient qualities in Brahms’s writing, at the same time expressing the deeper emotional undercurrents that are never far from the surface of Brahms’s music. The recording itself is first-rate too, with excellent balance between woodwind, brass and strings. The massive sounds generated by this virtuoso orchestra on occasion are reproduced clearly and without distortion, and Brahms’s frequently dense, linear textures emerge with impressive clarity.

Brahms’s Symphonies are of course extremely well represented in the recorded music catalogue, and this set is sure to become one of the leading contemporary recordings of these works. I’ve listened to a host of different versions of these symphonies as I’ve been writing this programme over the past few weeks, and I know that I’ll be returning frequently to Chailly’s ones in the future. But as with all recordings, and all performances, it’s not the last word. Evergreen works like these benefit from a range of interpreters, and so it’s always worth exploring other interpretations in addition to one’s favourites. I really like Chailly’s new readings of the Brahms Symphonies though, and am looking forward to spending many more hours living with them over Christmas and the New Year. Those familiar with these works will be interested to hear his take on them; and there’s no better place to start for those of you coming to these works for the first time.