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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Symphony No.2 in D, op.73 (1877) [37:21]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Münch
rec. 1956, Symphony Hall, Boston Mass, ADD

available in Redbook CD, 24/96 DVD and HQCD.

Experience Classicsonline

When reviewing the West Hill Radio Archives set of Münch conducting Beethoven Symphonies and Concertos (WHRA 6014 – 5 CDs) I made the point that Münch was best known for his performances of French music and although he programmed the German repertoire in his concerts any recording of him in these works is to be sought out. That Beethoven set was a revelation, so is this Brahms.
Considered to be the “sunniest”, perhaps what is meant is the easiest to listen to, of his four Symphonies, No.2 is, to be sure, without most of the stresses and strains to be found in his other symphonic works. It has a relaxed atmosphere almost throughout and even when Brahms raises his voice it isn’t in an aggressive manner, more that of a stern father reprimanding his errant child. The first movement, marked Allegro non troppo, and that designation of non troppo (not too much) is apt for this music isn’t “fast” per se; neither is it that easy allegretto intermezzo–type of tempo Brahms so often chooses for his scherzo equivalent movements. In this performance Münch leans away from the non troppo in favour of the allegro. At times one feels a sense of the music being rushed and pushed slightly too hard. Certainly I occasionally felt a breathlessness to the performance and the very ending of the movement is somewhat glib.
The slow movement, Adagio non troppo, whilst again suffering from too little non troppo, has a grand symphonic sweep, the opening tune being given the full and romantic treatment, and the ensuing woodwind dialogue is quite delightfully placed. However, the second subject is most certainly rushed and robbed of its warmth and stature, but this mood soon passes and the rest of the movement positively glows.
The third movement, a medium paced intermezzo, with a fast middle section, which appears twice, is just about perfect. Münch marries the two different types of music together well and makes a satisfactory whole, even the overdone rallentando at the end fits in perfectly with Münch’s view.
The finale is a real race, and, in some ways, it’s none the worse for that. Here, Münch pushes the music at times, for parts of it can take this more hard-edged approach, In order for it to really work there needs to be contrast, a slight relaxing of the forward momentum from time to time, so that one doesn’t have the feeling of the band sounding uncomfortable, and this is missing here. It’s very exciting but lacks a real heart.
Despite my misgivings concerning Münch’s interpretation, and the orchestra’s occasionally moments of discomfiture, I enjoyed most of this performance. It is so alive, so full of electricity and there’s a passionate verve in evidence in almost every bar. The sound is very clear, if somewhat fierce at times, and can take a slight cut in the treble to make the violins a little less wiry and brutal. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this to you for it to be your only recording of this work, but it does complement my favourites: Marin Alsop (Naxos 8.557429 – coupled with 8 Hungarian Dances), Boult (EMI 5 69819 2 – coupled with the Haydn Variations also on HMV and Disky) and Horenstein (live in 1966 on SOMMCD 037 – coupled with Strauss’s Don Juan).
I am very happy to have this performance available for whilst not displaying Brahms on holiday, so to speak, it does show Brahms the kindly uncle who is occasionally a bit gruff.

Bob Briggs


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