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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Tragic Overture, op. 81 (1881) [14:05]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (1877) [42:01]
London Classical Players/Roger Norrington
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, September 1992. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 54875 [55:11]

Roger Norrington is the only conductor to have recorded the Brahms symphonies on period instruments and it’s good to have this deleted EMI issue available on Arkiv CD. In a fascinating booklet note Norrington details the differences in the orchestra, playing technique and style. He uses the early valve horns of Brahms’ time and a much smaller string section than today, creating a more even balance with woodwind and brass. He has 10 first violins, 10 second violins, 8 violas, 6 cellos and 6 double basses in an orchestra of 59 players.
At the opening of Symphony 2 the clarity and lightness of phrasing is noticeable, a stillness and soft serenity at the first entry of first violins and violas marked ‘sweet’, a quiet yet gleamingly penetrating period strings’ celebration of melody. But Norrington also delights in contrasting textures. For example, there follows a powerful tutti with brass fully engaged and then a playful passage introduced by oboes and horns, offset by first violins mirrored by seconds. Cellos and violas present the second theme genially (tr. 2 2:12) to filigree decoration by the violins. Norrington cleanly sets out all the detail without indulging in it.
The third theme (3:09) has a spirited kick and the violins’ further exploration of the first theme headed by four note motto is quietly underscored by cellos and double basses’ insistent repetition of that motto. Norrington’s exposition repeat (5:03) seems smoother, more lilting in phrasing and a little more glowing in sonority. The development (9:56) begins in more shadowy fashion but is resilient in its trials and triumph until the quiet but sunny recapitulation where the oboes are given the opening horn parts and the violins’ figurations from this chamber size orchestra are especially tender. The famous horn solo (17:10) is of considerable reflection and drama but within this scale and context. Similarly Norrington finds a measured neatness in the coda (17:56) as well as an affectionate manner.
I compared another performance of slightly smaller chamber forces, but on modern instruments, that by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Charles Mackerras recorded in 1997 (Telarc CD 80464). He uses 10 first violins, 8 second violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos and 4 double basses in an orchestra of 53 players. Here are the comparative timings.

Mackerras begins with smoother phrasing and in warmer, more rounded manner but a little more lingering. His tutti aren’t as fiery, his second theme weightier, without Norrington’s richly melodic golden tone but more romantically articulated. Mackerras’ss third theme is rather more formal but I like the way he thereafter gives more prominence to the motto in the bass so it’s equally balanced with the violins’ exploration of it in accordance with Brahms’ marks.
With Mackerras there’s more of a sense of everything scrupulously fitting together where Norrington concentrates on sweeping, broad-brush effects of ebb and flow. Mackerras’s development is calm and reflective at first, then a crisp working out of a musical proposition whereas Norrington goes into more of a reverie at the outset to pick up discipline again as the first violins initiate the marcato variant of the opening theme (tr. 2 10:27). Mackerras’s recapitulation is rosier in tone, the violins’ figurations silkier, the famous horn solo smoother, the coda made more luxuriant by the occasional slide in the violins.
The cellos’ theme opening the slow movement is sober with again clarity and purpose of expression but also warmly mellow in Norrington’s hands, the sympathetic wind accompaniment made significant. A second phase of delicate intricacy, marked grazioso (tr. 3 2:39) is sunnier, by turns sweet and wistful. A third phase (3:36) begins innocently but soon becomes more turbulent and Norrington reveals just how much activity can surprisingly take place. The return of the opening is combined with this third phase material but doesn’t fully settle until a broad spanned violin line takes over. Norrington squarely faces the disturbances then meets the desire for repose.
Mackerras is more outwardly expressive in the cellos’ opening theme but I prefer Norrington’s more intimate, internalized interpretation with just as fine dynamic shading yet more subtly applied. Mackerras’s second phase is smoothly glowing but doesn’t quite have Norrington’s seamless continuity or wistfulness. Mackerras’s third phase is stormier but again I prefer Norrington’s more inward disquiet. Later Mackerras brings great sheen to the violins’ expansive melody yet Norrington gives it an equally, if not more, telling delicate weight and poise.
The third movement, a gentle kind of scherzo, is at the outset from Norrington smoother, creamier, benign and content. The first Trio (tr. 4 1:00), a faster variant of the opening theme, is feathery at first, then frisky. The second Trio (2:26) is crisper and more bracing in its offbeat accents before the opening material returns more regally dance like and the violins indulge in a wistful sigh.
Mackerras’s third movement, smooth and comely at the start, begins more intimately but here I prefer Norrington who has more spring in his step, more joyous where Mackerras is serene. His first Trio is more exuberant than Mackerras’s niftiness and his second Trio has more zip though Mackerras is energetic. The return of the opening material is more luxuriant from Norrington though Mackerras shapes it with more nuance. Mackerras’s first violins’ sigh is sweeter, Norrington’s more movingly wistful.
Norrington makes the finale a true allegro con spirito, beginning quietly but still with a merry, carefree swinging nature and soon an explosion of heady, festive sound relieved only by the rich and assured second theme on first violins and violas mainly in low register (tr. 5 1:22) and the tranquillo section from 3:54. The recapitulation brings even more of a party atmosphere crowned by the boisterous coda with scampering descending scales from tuba, trombones and trumpets in turn while that huge blast of sustained sound at the very end comes from just the 3 trombones.
Mackerras’s finale is superbly articulated, less precipitous than Norrington yet more vibrantly accented. His second theme is warmer, his tranquillo section more cloudy, his coda with plenty of bounce and brass unbuttoned. But Norrington conveys a more exciting onward surge, contrasted by a more serious, pointedly shaped second theme and roller coaster of a coda. Norrington’s exuberance is on the edge of chaos and in general his performance is more quicksilver and spontaneous whereas Mackerras displays masterly control which itself yields vivid results.
Norrington’s CD begins with Brahms Tragic Overture given a crisp, even fiery opening. But eloquent oboe pleading leads to balmy treatment of the trombones’ consolatory motif and horn calls to transform the atmosphere for a second theme on violins (tr. 1 3:09) of flowing warmth. The development (5:54) finds still more variety in the smoother graces of woodwind over mysterious pizzicato strings. It’s nicely shaped after the previous restless progression and neatly built up. The recapitulation (9:13) is here marked by warm horns, silkily descending strings and the violas’ ardent taking up the second theme (9:30) has an attractive elasticity.
I compared the 1996 live recording by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec 0630131362). His opening two chords are more formal, not the explosive, cutting, sabre like strokes of Norrington. Harnoncourt’s introduction is strenuous and serious but you don’t notice the rasping brass that Norrington’s greater clarity of texture with a smaller orchestra and period instruments brings and Harnoncourt’s slower approach, 14:20 overall against Norrington’s 12:57, emphasises weight at the expense of the energy and heroic athleticism that Norrington conveys.
Harnoncourt’s second theme has appealing breadth and ardour but Norrington makes it a more human, magnanimous response, not just merging into the tragic situation at 3:43 but with a feeling of being swept forward by it, the tension between strings and horns particularly striking. Similarly Norrington’s development, as a propelled process, is an adventure as well as a mystery and his faster close is more tense and climactic. There’s much to be said, then, for a chamber orchestra performance of this overture and Norrington’s is the only one available on disc.
So Norrington’s Brahms on period instruments provides a cleaner toned and textured, fresh perspective, less romantic than the norm but with its own impetus and drama. Also available are the other discs of Norrington’s Brahms cycle, Symphony 1 plus the Haydn Variations on Arkiv CD EMI 54286, Symphonies 3 and 4 on Arkiv CD EMI 56118.
Michael Greenhalgh


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