thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Tragic Overture, op. 81 (1881) [14:05]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (1877) [42:01]
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, September 1992. DDD EMI CLASSICS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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