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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 (1877) [42.50]
Variations on the St Antony Chorale, Op. 56a (1873) [17.13]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
rec. 6-11 (Symphony) and 27-30 (Variations) January 1997, Usher Hall, Edinburgh
TELARC CD-80464 [60.03]

The Brahms symphonies can readily be described as ‘central repertoire’, meaning that all orchestras play them season on season. 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 in these recordings made in 1997 and released as a three CD set now made available separately. Telarc and Mackerras set down all four symphonies plus a few additional items. The coupling of the Symphony No. 2 and the St Anthony Variations undoubtedly makes for an attractive programme. The Variations find orchestra and conductor at their freshest and most imaginative. Mackerras is an experienced hand, and his choices of tempi across the sequence of variations are unerring. There is real urgency, and the seeming opposites of variety and unity are reconciled. As elsewhere in this series of recordings the violin sound is on the thin side, but the added clarity does serve as compensation.

The Symphony No. 2 is a gloriously lyrical work on the large-scale, and Mackerras has a strong view of how its scale and scope should be realized. There is not a dull moment, and there is much distinguished playing besides. The richness of the bass, as at the opening, is a plus-point, but again the violin sound lacks body and bloom. There is a compensatory litheness but anyone who has heard this music played by a great symphony orchestra will notice the difference in this department. Whether it is recording or playing is hard to fathom. Probably it is the former, since the bass department is so much more satisfying.

The performance generates considerable tension and the musical line is always taut. It is moments like the glorious unfolding of the first subject of the opening movement that leave the listener a shade frustrated, but the compelling symphonic argument is urgently drawn. Likewise the richly romantic second movement has suitable richness of texture and darkness of tone, but the upper range is less fulfilling.

In the light of all this it comes as no surprise that the performance of the third movement intermezzo is less problematic. Indeed, the judgement of relative features is near-ideal. In the finale the sweep of symphonic momentum is irresistible, and the glorious D major sound of the final tutti is itself justification of Brahms’ symphonic journey.


Terry Barfoot



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