year I gave an enthusiastic welcome
Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Brahms First
symphony, which was the opening instalment of his new cycle
based on the ‘Brahms and his Antecedents’ concert project.
For any readers who acquired that first volume and who
shared my admiration for Gardiner’s achievement there,
my review can be brief. I can assure them that this latest
instalment in the cycle is as provocative, perceptive and
exciting as its predecessor and they can invest with confidence.
New readers, as they say, should start here.
before Gardiner prefaces the symphony with some fascinating
and highly relevant choral pieces by Brahms himself and
by Schubert. The latter’s Gesang der Geister über
is something of a rarity. Gardiner has
recorded it previously, however. It was the filler to the
recording he made with the Wiener Philharmoniker in 1997
of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (DG 457 648-2) It’s a setting
for male voce choir (TTBB) of words by Goethe and the accompaniment
is rather unusual, consisting of two violas, two cellos
and a double bass. I haven’t heard Gardiner’s earlier recording.
This present performance makes Schubert’s piece sound surprisingly
modern. I think that’s in large part due to the spare accompaniment,
which has a rather unearthly sound, especially when played,
as here, on what I assume are gut strings. As Schubert
was sometimes wont to do in his choral music he takes the
top tenor line very high in places but the men of the Monteverdi
Choir rise to the challenge. The choir gives a vivid performance,
strongly projected. It’s an interesting piece if not, I
think, top-drawer Schubert and it’s an excellent example
of early German Romantic music.
two arrangements of Schubert songs for unison male voice
choir and orchestra by Brahms are even more unusual – indeed,
I wasn’t previously aware of their existence. ‘Gruppe aus
dem Tartarus’ is effectively orchestrated but I was a little
surprised to find that the setting doesn’t really gain
in excitement over the usual solo version, as one might
have expected from an arrangement that employs, on this
occasion, twenty male voices in unison accompanied by orchestra.
Somehow there’s at least as much power and thrill when
one hears a solo singer such as Fischer-Dieskau proclaiming
majestically the word “Ewigkeit” accompanied simply by
a piano. A slightly different problem arises in ‘An Schwager
Kronos’. For all the excellence of the choral singing – and
the men produce wonderful tone both here and elsewhere – a
group of singers can’t savour the words in individual phrases
such as “Labe dich! – Mir auch, Mädchen” in the same way
that a solitary singer can. All that said, I’m glad to
have heard these acts of homage by Brahms, which are very
interesting in their own right.
Before moving on to the more familiar pieces on the disc I think
one comment is appropriate. If I have a complaint about the otherwise
excellent documentation, I wish a little space had been devoted
to the provision of some information about the more recherché
music on the disc. The fascinating discussion between Sir John
and composer Hugh Wood focuses almost exclusively on the symphony,
with some comments about the Alto Rhapsody
. However, the
other three items on the programme, which probably will be unfamiliar
to many collectors, are not even mentioned. That’s a pity, especially
since the raison d’être
of the whole series is to place
the Brahms symphonies in the context of music that exerted a profound
influence on him.
Stutzmann’s account of the Alto Rhapsody
disc off to an impressive start. I always find this an
amazing work. It contains music that is some of the most
searching and profound that Brahms ever composed, including
some harmonic language and some sonorities that, to the
best of my knowledge, he rarely if ever matched elsewhere
in his output. This work alone, it seems to me, would justify
the title of Schoenberg’s famous essay “Brahms the Progressive”.
I love the dark, tangy colours that we hear in the orchestra
right at the start of this performance. Typical of Gardiner
is the way accents and dynamics are sharply and precisely
observed to bring out all the contours and contrasts in
the music and to imbue it with the proper weight.
Stutzmann’s singing is marvellous. Her voice has rich brown
hues to it and she sings most expressively, though without
the slightest hint of exaggeration. Worthy of note are
touches such as the mystery with which she invests “die Öde
verschlingt ihn”. The solo part encompasses a huge range
during the opening pages in particular; from low A flat
to the G flat nearly two octaves above. Miss Stutzmann
seems to encompass it all with consummate ease. After the
uneasy music of the first part, when the Big Tune arrives
(7:29) it’s like balm to the soul. This is an eloquent,
thoughtful performance of one of Brahms’s great works and
I found it a moving experience.
And so to the Second
Symphony. Once again I took down from the shelves the excellent
account by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber
Orchestra. In his cycle, Mackerras aimed to recreate, albeit
on modern instruments, the scale of performance that Brahms
would have experienced from Fritz Steinbach’s Meiningen
Court Orchestra. I was very interested to read Gardiner’s
comment in the conversation with Hugh Wood in the booklet.
He avers that we “shouldn’t be fooled by the size of the
Meiningen orchestra (totalling 49 players) into thinking
that it corresponded to Brahms’ ideal.” Gardiner says
that Brahms used it for semi-private run-throughs, implying
that he would have preferred a larger band, as is fielded
here, Gardiner’s band running to sixty-two players. A key
difference between Gardiner’s orchestra and the one used
by Mackerras lies in the size of the respective string
sections. Gardiner has 12, 10, 8, 7, 5 while Mackerras
has 10, 8, 6, 6, 4.
I think it should be
said in defence of Sir Charles that I believe the claims
he made in support of his recordings were relatively modest.
He was careful to relate his recreation to just one, very
particular orchestra of the time and his performance was
given on modern instruments. In fact I think that, as was
the case with the First Symphony, both Mackerras’s and
Gardiner’s versions have their own validity and we can
learn much from both.
In the booklet discussion
between Hugh Wood and Sir John one of the points they’re
keen to make is that this is by no means a “light” symphony.
As Wood puts it “you don’t have to listen to the Second
for very long to discover that its cheerfulness has been
grossly exaggerated.” That’s a view with which I concur,
though there is a positive aspect to the music, and Wood
and Gardiner stress that too in their conversation. When
it comes to the performance itself I feel that over the
span of the whole symphony Gardiner balances very successfully
the dark and light sides of the work.
So, for example, at the
start of the first movement there’s a slight trace of tartness
to the string tone, which I’m sure is no accident, but
then, moments later, the wonderful phrases on first violins
at cue A (1:12) truly sing out. In general Gardiner’s reading
of this movement has plenty of energy. Yet I notice that
he’s far from afraid to modify tempi, often subtly, even
when not marked in the score, to achieve the right effect.
A good example of this occurs at cue F (4:08). As you’d
expect he takes the exposition repeat (hooray!), as does
Mackerras. The violins are divided, which is another cause
for celebration. There are many times during the performance
when this reaps great dividends. My ear was caught, for
example, by the passage between cues J and K, where not
only does the split of the two sections allow for their
distinct parts to be heard clearly but, crucially, the
viola line, which is an integral part of the texture, comes
through clearly in the middle
– physically as well
as musically – just as Brahms surely intended. It’s details
like this, which come through quite naturally, as well
as the overall sweep of the reading, that make this performance
so enthralling. One last point of detail to mention is
the famous horn solo just after cue M (17:20). Played on
a natural horn the passage sounds marvellously earthy.
The second movement starts
gravely, with the lower strings playing their yearning
line with splendid sonority. This is the only true adagio
movement in a Brahms symphony and Gardiner appreciates
the added gravitas. There are many felicities in the playing,
such as the fine woodwind work at cue B (2:51). Gardiner
takes a significantly more weighty view of stretches of
this movement, such as the opening, than does Mackerras.
I like the Mackerras reading but Gardiner seems to tap
a deeper, more tragic vein.
Both performances are
light and smiling at the start of the third movement. When
the presto ma non assai
section arrives both conductors
are lithe and nimble in their readings. One could argue
that neither really heeds the injunction ma non assai
I don’t mind that at all. On the contrary, I find that
both are exhilarating here. Of the two it’s Gardiner whose
account is the more precipitate and exciting; in his hands
music really fizzes.
Gardiner’s finale is
splendid, as is the Mackerras reading. Both performances
have abundant energy and sweep. Once more there are some
fine points of detail to savour, especially in the Gardiner
account. As the excitement builds Gardiner’s timpanist,
superbly incisive throughout the symphony, plays with tremendous
panache, adding greatly to the drive of the performance.
The blazing coda is exhilarating and jubilant. Mackerras
too drives the music to a joyous conclusion but it’s Gardiner
who has me on the edge of my seat.
As was the case with
the respective First Symphonies I think the recorded sound
plays a part in the overall evaluation of the performance.
The Telarc sound for Mackerras is very pleasing but, at
least on my equipment, sounds a little soft centred. By
comparison the SDG recording is much more present and a
bit more forward and the engineers have captured the punch
and power of the performance, as well as its more subtle
moments. I still esteem the Mackerras reading highly but
I feel that, as with the First Symphony, Gardiner has the
We’re now halfway through
this Gardiner cycle and the very high expectations aroused
by Volume One have been met comfortably in this second
instalment. This is shaping up to be a tremendous Brahms
cycle, with the vocal items a substantial and enlightening
bonus. As with Volume One the attractions of this release
are enhanced by SDG’s usual high presentation standards.
Last year I made the CD of the First Symphony one of my
Recordings of the Year. This latest instalment will be
on the shortlist for 2009, I feel sure – unless SDG trump
this particular ace by releasing Symphony 3 before the
year end. One can live in hope.