These performances recall those given by the great German orchestras in the twentieth-century of which WDR – then known as Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk – is one. There is breadth of tempo and fullness of timbre with rich woodwind chording and full-bodied strings giving the familiar ‘Brahms sound’. Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s interpretations are very much in line with this tradition and would be a good thing except that he does not free himself from altering speed at certain specific points. They are all well-known: particularly the slowing down for the chorale motif at the end of Symphony 1 shortly after Brahms indicates a faster speed; then there is the failure to keep up the impulse in the second melody of the Finale to No.2; the tradition also extends to varying the pace of the regular eight-note pulse of No.4’s Finale passacaglia. Saraste includes these subjective impositions and because of his generally lyrical approach the loss of impetus is clearly evident. Elsewhere however, his freedom of tempo is expressive without disrupting the music’s flow – notably his slight relaxation for the beautiful quiet section in the first movement of No.4.
Of all the Symphonies, Saraste’s interpretation of No 3 is the most impressive. True he relaxes a little after the dramatic opening but his fierce drive through the Finale does, on this occasion, ignore the habitual speed changes. The essential first-movement repeat is an element in Saraste’s confident approach which understands Brahms’s respect for Classical form. The expressive nature of this account is underlined by a tendency to legato phrasing with dramatic sequences given all-enveloping warmth. This is much in evidence in the First Symphony where the forceful introductions to the outer movements are phrased with such care that they are comforting rather than threatening. Symphony No.2 is given an expansive reading, the relaxed opening movement is complete with repeat and the Adagio includes the subtlest of phrasing.
Saraste’s view of No.4 stresses gracefulness rather than drama. In the slow movement he adds tenderness to the mood of solemnity. The close of the Symphony is all the more imposing because he ignores the tradition of suddenly hastening near the end.
The performances of the remaining works are also rich in sound. Tragic Overture is swift, (two minutes faster than Colin Davis for example) and it also includes a surprise because the music from partway through bar 14 to partway through bar 16 is missing, here at twenty-four seconds in, and presumably an editing error. Academic Festival Overture catches the attention at once – the strict rhythm in the opening section giving a lift and the jolly ending is joyous albeit with the usual modesty when it comes to percussion. Haydn Variations is presented with sensitivity – again, rhythmic strength is a feature, the ‘Siciliano’ Variation (VII) is incisively pointed and the preceding horn-led episode succeeds because of the subtle emphasis given by the timpani. Woodwinds are well-detailed throughout – altogether a rendition to grab the attention.