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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876) [44.07]
Symphony No. 1, initial version of second movement (before 1876) [8.35]
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1880) [9.40]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. January 1997, Usher Hall, Edinburgh
TELARC CD-80463 [63.51]
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The Brahms symphonies can readily be described as ‘central repertoire’, meaning that all orchestras play them season on season, and there are recordings in abundance.

It may seem surprising to find a chamber orchestra entering what is symphony orchestra territory, but by ensuring that the strings are up to strength, this is a distinct possibility. The clarity of ensemble and excellence of the players are things for which the best chamber orchestras, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, are well known.

So it proves here in these recordings made in 1997 and released on three CDs, available separately, of all four symphonies plus a few additional items. The additional items on this first disc are particularly interesting and successful. The Academic Festival Overture, commissioned in 1880 by the University of Breslau in the hope that Brahms would write a symphony instead, is sharply focused under Sir Charles Mackerras’s direction, with some particularly distinguished playing by the woodwinds. The addition of percussion makes an impact in the recorded sound too, in this exciting performance.

The other additional item derives from the First Symphony, the principal material on the disc and the music which probably caused Brahms more trouble than anything else he composed, save perhaps the Piano Concerto No. 1. Work on the symphony began many years before the premiere, which took place in 1876 when the composer was well into his forties. It is therefore intriguing to hear the discarded version of the slow movement, which sounds very much like the movement we know, save that it keeps moving in unexpected directions. Of course the first version seems inferior to the second, but that is because knowing the final version makes us listen with expectations of how the musical argument will develop.

The ghost of Beethoven looms large over the symphony, and in many ways. The sweep from C minor to major with the trombones reserved for the finale in order to add their weight to proceedings recalls the Fifth Symphony, and the main theme of that movement has a clear relationship to the ‘Ode to Joy’ in Beethoven’s Ninth. ‘Any fool can tell that’, said Brahms.

The First is the most openly epic and heroic of the four symphonies, and therefore the work in which the size of the performing ensemble might most obviously be at issue. Not that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is or sounds puny. The booklet helpfully lists the players, and though there are just six cellos and four double basses, the lower strings as a whole sound warm and full-bodied. In this performance, and elsewhere in the collection besides, it is the violin sound that poses questions, in that when the music moves above the stave there is often a lack of warmth and body. Overall this is an issue that affects the experience of the music, not least in the large-scale argument. For example, in the finale the momentum and power of the conception are influenced by the sound itself, and in an adverse way.

This is a pity, since Mackerras brings plenty of attack and drama to the first movement and a wonderfully lyrical line to the second. The latter features sensitive attention to details of dynamic and some really distinguished playing. This is one of those recordings in which it is difficult to tell whether the issue of the string sound lies in the original performance or in the way that the recording has captured it.

Terry Barfoot


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