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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [39.57]
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) [39.09]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. 6-11 (Symphony No. 3) and 27-30 (Symphony No. 4) January 1997, Usher Hall, Edinburgh. DDD
TELARC CD-80465 [79.06]




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 as a three CD set, available separately, of all four symphonies plus a few additional items. The coupling of Symphonies 3 and 4 is a generous one and the performances have great merit. Mackerras is an experienced conductor and knows how to capture the strengths of each of these great pieces. For in each case there is an urgent sense of drama, with an ebb and flow of tension and relaxation across the symphonic span.

The Third Symphony is particularly fine in this performance, probably the most successful of the four gathered in this collection. The autumnal postlude of the finale glows warmly, casting its reflection across the whole work, the spreading of the tempo being absolutely right.

As with the other recordings in the series, the violin sound will not suit all tastes. The booklet admirably puts forward the case for a more modestly-sized string section, such as Brahms would have encountered at Meiningen, for which orchestra he composed the Symphony No. 4. However, since the warmth of the strings is pleasingly captured, the rather thin violin sound is as likely to be the result of the recording as of the number of players. Be that as it may, the lack of body is noticeable from the very beginning of the first movement - it seems less problematic in No. 3 - and there is a certain shrillness too. The beautiful playing of the woodwinds brings ample compensation, as it does elsewhere in the series.

The taut rhythms of the third movement scherzo are brilliantly done with as tight an ensemble as you could wish to hear, and the triangle as ever makes its telling presence felt. But it is upon the finale that the weight of the symphony and its tragic conclusion must fall. Mackerras brings an urgency to the drama, and it seems scarcely credible that Brahms conjured more than thirty variations into little more than ten minutes, so fluent is the musical line. The momentum is a powerful force, and brings this interesting Brahms cycle to an imposing conclusion.

Terry Barfoot


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