It took Brahms some 20 years to arrive at a first symphony with which he was totally happy, and rather like a London bus his second followed within the year. The two works are chalk and cheese, the stormy waters of the first calmed somewhat in the peaceful opening of the second.
Bernard Haitink is no stranger to this work, having recorded it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra previously, and he gives a taut, lithe reading which may be a bit too cutting for seasoned Brahms listeners, but carries with it the excitement of a live performance given last May in the Barbican.
There are some magical moments, not least in the expansive Adagio and the triumphant finale. As the booklet observes, the second is Brahms’s most upbeat symphony, perhaps his ‘Pastoral’, and that comes across here, although Haitink remains keen to stress the light and shade.
The soft beginning on lower strings is well handled, and the work eases in effortlessly. When the quicker music arrives things occasionally get a bit too fraught in the upper register of the strings when compared to, say, Herbert von Karajan, the most polished of all versions.
The slow movement is the best thing here, some deeply felt phrasing from the LSO, and the relatively light scherzo passes gracefully. Bringing the work together in the finale is an easy task for someone as experienced as Haitink, and the performance makes sense as a whole.
The Double Concerto is probably the least performed of Brahms’s orchestral works, for several reasons – the technical demands on the violin and cello soloists, the problem of balance between these two and the orchestra, and the chamber-like sensibilities that at times seem to hark back to the early Brahms String Sextets.
It makes sense to elevate the sectional leaders of the LSO to soloist duty, and Gordon Nikolitch partners Tim Hugh in a technically sound version, with the balance caught just right even when Brahms’ cello writing strives to be heard. As a relative newcomer to the work I found repeated listening essential to get under the surface, the dense textures revealing some intimate writing.
What will clinch this disc for many people is the price – for a fiver you can explore the first in a series of Brahms from this source, as LSO Live continues to make headway in the classical market in this, the orchestra’s centenary year.