Brahms • Symphonies 1-4

Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra
LPO "Own Label"
Four 180-gram LPs



by Roy Gregory | June 22, 2015

n the face of it, the news of another classical box set full of LPs isn’t going to set the audiophile world alight. With more and more audiophile reissue houses "creating" sets by collecting performances, cutting discs at 45rpm or even on single sides, the appearance of LP box sets isn’t the rarity it once was. But this is a box with a difference and in that difference lies reason for rejoicing, at least if you are a dedicated listener to classical music and especially if you are a committed concert goer.

What sets this release apart is that these are not reissues of historical recordings. These are current recordings of one of the world’s great orchestras, directed by one of our most respected conductors. Much as I love Fritz and Lennie, Sir Adrian and Sir John, to my mind that makes these records very different and very special indeed, especially if they indicate the shape of things to come.

The benefits of listening to music on vinyl, from sound quality and technical parameters to the tactile ritual of extracting and playing a record whilst savoring the large-format artwork, have been well reported and are becoming increasingly well recognized. Yet look at the current range of classical music available on LP, the genre that theoretically stands to gain most from the format’s musical attributes, and it’s dominated by audiophile fashion and the credibility that attaches to particular labels and/or performers. You want to listen to Reiner or Kertesz? There’s a good chance you’ll find examples of their work on 180-gram vinyl -- simply because one recorded for RCA and the other for Decca during the "golden age of stereo" and both Living Stereo and SXL2000-series discs are highly sought-after collectibles -- the thing that drives the reissue market.

The trouble is that the range of music available will be dictated by what was fashionable when the recordings were made and the choice will be further narrowed by what people actually buy now. That’s a situation that leaves gaping holes in the available repertoire, one that’s further exacerbated by the fact that many of the really big labels, the ones that could afford to contract the best conductors, soloists and orchestras and issue extensive cycles of any given composer’s work, lack the audiophile credibility to warrant major vinyl reissue programs. Thus, if you thumb through the catalogues of the audiophile record labels, you’ll find that classical recordings from Decca, RCA and Mercury numerically swamp the likes of those from EMI, DGG and Philips. You can argue about the relative size and merits of the various labels, but there’s no escaping the imbalance and that extends to the repertoire. Try finding symphonies from Haydn or Mozart, Brahms or Schumann, Rachmaninov, Mahler or Shostakovich and you are going to be disappointed. Don’t even think about the Beethoven late quartets or Mozart’s operas. You might find a single example of an individual work, but the idea of a complete canon is completely absent. Speakers Corner reissued the 1962 von Karajan Beethoven Symphonies as a set, but that really is the exception that proves the rule.

Yet this scattergun approach flies in the face of what listening to classical music is all about, at least as far as I’m concerned. For me, it’s a linear process. The fascination lies as much in how a composer’s work develops and how different readings reveal it as much as in the individual works or performances themselves. You might love Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but it takes on a new dimension once you listen to more than one performance, as well as considering it in the light of the Third and Fourth Symphonies -- or the later Seventh. Karajan’s 1962 reading is fine, but what of his later interpretations? He recorded the complete cycle twice more. Then there’s Kleiber, Böhm and Klemperer -- and that’s just the tip of the German iceberg.

If you really want to enjoy classical music on vinyl, then you can begin to see the problem, a problem that’s exacerbated if you also listen to it live. Which is exactly what makes this set of Brahms Symphonies so exciting. Not only is it all four symphonies, but rather than a performance drawn from nearly fifty years ago, it is totally current, not just in terms of the performers but also the style of the performances. The LPO is just one of the many orchestras that has resorted to filling the funding void left by the demise of the major classical record labels (these days only major solo stars -- preferably young, good-looking and marketable -- get long-term contracts) by offering recordings on their own label. These might be taped at special sessions, but more often than not they are drawn from live performances.

That’s the case here and it’s no bad thing. Visit the LPO website and you’ll find around 150 CD titles -- including some remarkable archival releases -- with the vast majority featuring concert performances by the orchestra directed by its principle or guest conductors. In amongst them you’ll find the CD versions of Jurowski’s Brahms Symphonies spread across a pair of separate discs, the source tapes for this box set -- the LPO’s first venture into the world of vinyl. Mind you, they’re in pretty good company, with both the San Francisco SO and Berliner Phiharmoniker recently releasing vinyl box sets to supplement their digital-disc and download catalogues (Michael Tilson Thomas’s complete Mahler cycle from the SFSO, 23 LPs for $749; Rattle’s four Schumann Symphonies, €140 from the BPO). The £85 price makes the LPO set look like especially good value, matching the massive SFSO set on price per disc and handily undercutting the German competition.

So, have they cut any corners to hit that price point? The four 180-gram discs (beautifully produced by Record Industry in Holland) are cut using a DMM lathe and then pressed on a modified Tanus Ton Technik press. They’re clean, flat and perfectly quiet. If only all records looked this good and were this free of spurious noise. And before you throw your hands up in horror at the idea of DMM stampers, consider this: the tapes themselves are digital. In this instance using a DMM lathe makes perfect sense. Even so, I can almost hear the cries of outrage from the analog diehards. Digital tapes? DMM? What’s the point? The point is simple: these recordings sound quite different (and in my opinion quite a bit better) played from vinyl -- and that’s before you get to the whole question of where your principle investment lies. Let’s face it -- if you are serious about record replay then your turntable probably cost more and delivers considerably better performance than your CD player, so yes, it stands to reason that there’s a real benefit to owning these performances on record.

And "performances" is the word. One beauty of taping a good live event is the holistic quality that you get, the sense of the music’s overall pattern and shape, the atmosphere and creative tension that exist in the hall. These performances aren’t just good -- they are genuinely great. Jurowski is fast gaining a reputation as a major conductor of Brahms and on the evidence of these discs that should come as no surprise. With any orchestra and conductor, their relationship is crucial to the musical outcome. Here, the affection and respect between Jurowski and the LPO is clearly apparent. He demands dynamic and energetic performances and the orchestra duly delivers. Where the Brahms Symphonies can (and so often do) sound slow, cluttered and weighed down by the sheer complexity of their orchestration, here the music is vivid, dramatic, full of life, energy, color and purpose, with the conductor’s mastery of tempo and clarity of structure illuminating and revealing the integrity and towering majesty of these works.

The readings here are remarkably consistent in quality, making it difficult to pick favorites, but a barnstorming Second and unstoppably powerful Fourth probably just pip the others. If you are used to hearing your Brahms served on the ponderous side, then the sheer vitality that Jurowski injects into the pieces, backed up by superb ensemble playing from the LPO, is going to come as quite a shock. For anybody who has struggled with these symphonies, suddenly the whole notion of Brahms inheriting (and suffering the weight of) Beethoven’s legacy makes perfect sense.

You could argue that with so many secondhand Brahms sets on offer, the Jurowski/LPO box is superfluous. I’d disagree. It makes a powerful musical statement and deserves a place on the "must-have" list on artistic grounds alone. Backing that up are recordings that do an excellent job of capturing the Festival Hall’s sense of space and acoustic. The orchestral spread is natural (rather than etched), with excellent instrumental weight and tonality. Just don’t get wrong-footed by Jurowski’s split strings layout, which spreads the violins across the front of the stage, places the cellos just left of center and the basses at the left rear.

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